Category Archives: New York

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Cat in the big city. Image via Rotten Tomatoes

Yes, Joel and Ethan Coen have given us a musical biopic. It doesn’t mean they had to give you one about a real musician. Or even make the movie you wanted to see.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers’ first film in a very long three years, is a welcome return to the big screen. It is the perfect awards season film that is also an anti-awards season film. It’s a tale for the holidays that wears its icy heart on its sleeves.

Like most Coen Brothers films, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is based on something else, but how much it’s based off of that thing is questionable. Davis is based on Dave Van Ronk. Most the songs in the movie are his, but Davis’ personality is different. This mystery just adds to the charm.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” takes place in the winter of 1961 and follows, well Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer who is just trying to get his voice heard. Llewyn is very talented and he has even released a few albums, yet no matter what he does he can never quite reach success. He has no permanent roof over his head, a cheap manager, and a former love interest who is convinced that he is the worst person on earth.

Adam Driver’s character on “Girls” would also wear that outfit.

And maybe he isn’t so great. The Coen Brothers don’t like perfect and kind protagonists. That is part of what makes all of their films so interesting: they are more interested in the people who keep on going, despite never quite getting what they want.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is damn near close to perfection, and I get the sense that it is a result of all the right people meeting at the exact right time. Isaac’s musical ability coincides beautifully with his acting talent. Justin Timberlake continues to show why he is more talented than all of us. Meanwhile, as Llewyn’s ex, Carey Mulligan serves as Llewyn’s reality check. She sure gets a lot of mileage out of the word “asshole.” Together, the three of them bring new life to old tunes, and make 1960s Greenwich Village feel so alive. Just like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” before it, you will want to buy the soundtrack the minute you get home.

Mainly, this film would not have been possible under any other writer or director. The Coen Brothers have one of the most distinct voices in modern cinema. Every time they portray the past, it is a past that did not quite exist: it is a Coen Brothers universe filled with unfortunate circumstances and off-beat, mumbling side characters.

While every Coen Brothers film has a sense of humor, “Inside Llewyn Davis” might be the funniest one they have done in years. Usually, it takes multiple viewings to find the humor in their films (“A Serious Man,” for example, becomes more of a comedy than a drama the more times you watch it). There is an unavoidable humor to John Goodman’s mean-spirited Roland Turner, and so many jokes mined at the expense of the oblivious kindness of the Gorfeins. Still, I refuse to ever call the Coen Brothers mean-spirited.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” relishes in its musical moments because the Coen Brothers, in collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, are so good at recreating the magic of watching a live performance. Yet, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is also an anti-musical. The songs do not teach lessons or move people to tears. “Inside Llewyn Davis” uniquely portrays a performer who’s central problem is that he cannot connect with others. Watching a portrayal of artistic failure might be sad, but it is important to know that sometimes those with talent can go completely unnoticed. Llewyn is honest and authentic, and those seem to be the exact qualities that get in the way of his success.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is often so grim yet it never feels tragic to watch. It does not follow a fluid plot but rather a series of situations that Davis is thrown into. The film is never meandering or dull, especially when this dark world is populated with such colorful characters. “Inside Llewyn Davis” strays away from all of the directions that similar films would have taken. The Coen Brothers don’t want to give you the ending that will necessarily satisfy you; they want to show you the world as they see it through their eyes as filmmakers.

After watching “Inside Llewyn Davis,” you too might realize that there might just be no better way to view a film from now on.

Brain Farts From The Edge

  • I went to a screening riddled with technical issues. There were sound and image problems, so the film had to be started over. Then, the reels had to be changed manually. Every time, a reel ended, we had to sit there and wait for the next reel to change. I definitely need to see this film again straight through. However, watching it this way was definitely an interesting experience. Call this a Coen Brothers Grindhouse experience.
  • Once again, the Coen Brothers nail the regional accent, dialect, and attitude. 
  • The Coen Brothers love them some characters with hard to pronounce/spell names.
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in 1961. In the Coens’ universe, that is exactly 20 years after “Barton Fink,” and just a few short years before The Dude would occupy various administrative buildings and smoke a lot of thai stick.
  • The cat itself is a great extra character. His name, which I won’t reveal, probably has a symbolic meaning which I have no idea of.
  • That ending. Will have to discuss it further in a spoiler-heavy review.
  • My favorite song in the film: the beautiful and moving rendition of “Five Hundred Miles.” I do have to give Adam Driver some credit for his hilarious vocal contributions to “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
  • I still am not sure whether or not this is intentional, but this poster for the film looks remarkably similar to this poster for “Taxi Driver.” It makes sense, as “Davis” has the mentality and feel of a 70s film as well as Scorsese’s understanding of New Yorkers. 
  • People Who Look Exactly Alike: Oscar Isaac, David Krumholtz, Jake Johnson
  • I like how Garrett Hedlund immediately left “On the Road,” took mumbling lessons from Rooster Cogburn, and then walked right onto the set of “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Movie Review: Frances Ha

At a very brief glance, “Frances Ha” is nothing more than a walking indie film trope. “Frances Ha” has everything that indie filmmakers love: ukeleles, Paris, children of divorce.”

I’m one to talk, as I consume movies like this a little too much. However, what seperates “Frances Ha” from the rest is its ambition and, despite its aimless characters, it actually has a good amount to say. Unfortunately, a lot of those things are left unsaid.

Dramedy is not the right word for “Frances Ha.” Tragicomedy would be a better way to put it, despite the fact that not many big, tragic events occur during its short running time. “Frances Ha” is filled with a lot of sad characters who are stuck in ruts. Yet, Noah Baumbach manages to find little bits of humor in all of the depression that always work so well. He is not just showing how these people live, but also prodding at them a little bit.

Director Noah Baumbach has clearly found his muse in Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Baumbach and stars as Frances. The two first collaborated on “Greenberg,” but “Frances Ha” works a little better. Baumbach is better at portraying ennui in his hometown of New York than in Los Angeles.

Unlike Greenberg and many other of Baumbach’s characters, Frances is not a complete loner. Her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) can best be described as co-dependent. Or in their own words, they’re like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” Their career goals couldn’t be more different: Frances wants to be a dancer and model, and Sophie hopes to one day run the publishing industry. These are the kind of goals the people in their 20s that live in Brooklyn have.

“Frances Ha” is mainly about how the friendship between Frances and Sophie deteriorates as Sophie moves on but Frances doesn’t. Frances becomes a drifter, going from apartment to apartment and couch to couch. Most notably, she stays with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), two aspiring artists who are kept afloat because of their rich parents.

“Frances Ha” explores an idea also explored in the very similar “Girls” that the spoiled seem to be the only ones who have the time to pursue artistic dreams. Frances is the rare poor artist. Yet, nobody seems to appreciate their opportunities when they come about. Benji gets a chance to send in a skit to “Saturday Night Live,” yet he doesn’t even seem to care if he gets it because he thinks the show isn’t as good as it used to be. Shockingly, this is something that people actually say.

As Sophie, relative newcomer Sumner makes a big impression. She can portray straight-laced heartbreak even when she seems absolutely calm. Meanwhile, Gerwig once again proves herself to be one of the most underrated actresses working today. One of my biggest problems with the film was that it’s opinion on Frances wasn’t always very clear. Gerwig knows when to make her likable and hatable. Sometimes, she can do both at the exact same time.

Unlike Baumbach’s past works, “Frances Ha” actually comes with a sense of relative closure. I have always had mixed feelings about Baumbach’s work, yet I always find myself excited about whatever new film he has planned. Ever since I saw “The Graduate,” I’ve been attracted to characters who don’t know what they want to do with their life. It’s the opposite of the uber-confidence that is usually considered to be the norm. It’s always refreshing to see someone admit that they have no idea what they’re doing. Deep down, we all feel the exact same way.

Movies with aimless characters only work if they have a point. “Frances Ha” works because it has a point. However, I still don’t quite know how Baumbach and Gerwig actually feel about Frances. There is no one there to really call her out ever. There is no Greek Chorus to tell the audience how to feel, which is good in one way, but bad in other ways. The film cycles through a lot of different characters in its short yet ambitious running time, but it often doesn’t take a second to let us know who they are and what their stance is. Frances spends a long time back home in Sacramento, but never once do they seem worried that their 27-year-old daughter is basically broke.

Yet, the flaws of the film still don’t hold it back too far. This is the first time Baumbach has shed more hope than cynicism into one of his films. Not to mention, it has the best soundtrack of any film so far this year and some really whip smart dialogue. At one point, Frances mentions that Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote in seclusion, was actually only five minutes away from his mother’s house. “Frances Ha” wants to be the voice of all twenty-somethings who aren’t nearly as independent as they think they are. You’ll probably connect to it, as long as you’ve ever lived in the vicinity of Brooklyn.

Movie Review: Friends With Kids

Let’s clear one thing up right now from the trailer of “Friends with Kids”: this is not a rom-com. This is not even a comedy about love. It is more along the lines of a dramedy with some awkward laughs, and a lot of babies ruining things. Man, do children ruin everything.

The main group of friends of “Friends with Kids” like to talk. A lot. About everything. I guess that’s what 30-something Manhattanites are supposed to do. In a fancy restaurant, two couples and two best friends discuss the mundane. Platonic best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) remark how much they hate the parents around them who bring their kids to a restaurant like this, to which Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) announce that they plan to have a baby. Some brief, yet awkwardly hilarious tension ensues.

Four years later, Alex and Leslie have two kids. The other couple Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) are also knee deep in babies. Ben and Missy weirdly seem to share a brain. Alex and Leslie meanwhile, are two very different personalities. Leslie is more uptight and stern, and Alex is the complete opposite. They fight a lot, but it is always clear that they love each other. As Alex, Chris O’Dowd chews up the scenery and brings humor back to having a foul mouth. He shows off the comedic skill that he could not in his nice guy role in “Bridesmaids.”

At this point, Jason and Julie are still single. They both want children, but without marriage, as they see it tearing as tearing apart the personal well being of their other friends. On impulse, they hatch the plan to have a baby while simply remaining friends. They are both the kind of people who believe they can have it all, so they decide to take part in this social experiment. The real lesson here: never have a baby before doing your research.

Julie gives birth and at first, the arrangement works out as well as they imagined it would. Then, problems arise when they both do what they set out to do: raise a child, and date other people at the same time. Jason gives in to his shallow tendencies and dates the beautiful, but empty Broadway dancer Mary Jane (Megan Fox, who hopefully didn’t call anyone Hitler on set), and Julie dates single father Kurt (Edward Burns), who is so perfect to the point of being an absolute bore.

“Friends with Kids” is an eclectic mix of Woody Allen and Robert Altman: it combines philosophical musings on love and relationships with bountiful overlapping conversations, with a profound love of New York City. The writing is often times sharp and full of wit, and lets the conversations drag on just before their breaking point. Rarely does a movie driven more by talking than plot get made, and rarely does it ever actually work.

Romantic comedies like to ask the question a lot of whether to people can be a couple without being in a relationship. In fact, it happened twice last year (“No Strings Attached,” “Friends with Benefits”). When it comes to romance, there are two rules that Hollywood lives by: true love exists, and if two friends have sex, they will eventually fall in love. “Friends with Kids” falls under the latter rule, but goes further than that. No two friends can raise another human being together without feeling the bond of love. This is why surrogate mothers exist.

Putting an image of Megan Fox in an article is a guarenteed way to increase the amount of hits you get.

But I like “Friends with Kids,” and the fact that it doesn’t just fall under the rules, but asks questions about why they mean, and why they are even there in the first place. This is not a movie where big events happen, but rather the story unfolds in walks through Central Park, dinner parties, and ski trips.

The dialogue has a very rapid fire that can be hard to keep up with. This is why I assume that five of the six deft actors in the cast are best known for work on television. Scott, usually a great supporting actor, steps up to the plate in his first true leading role. He takes his kind, nerdy role in “Parks and Rec” and the alpha male cockiness of his role in “Step Brothers,” and uses it all for Jason. He sells his ending speech with the genuine emotional breakdown that comes along with it. Scott is one of the best actors out there today; this guy never phones it in.

A few big problems that “Friends with Kids” has is that sometimes, it does reach the breaking point on conversations. The whole movie seems to be an experiment about a social experiment but sometimes, it does drag on a little too long. There is something of an underutilization of the actors, which ultimately leads to trouble with the story itself. For example, Hamm and Wiig are gone for a majority of the movie and when they come back, their marriage is inexplicably in shambles. And why does a character rendered as meaningless as Hamm’s Ben, get the honor of giving the speech that proves to be the turning point of the movie? Someone should have watched Don Draper’s Guide to Picking Up Women.

Westfeldt provides a look on love, marriage, and family that is funny, entertaining, and most importantly, honest. The honesty part is hard to come by nowadays. It is hard to get me to see a romantic comedy, and I’ll admit that what made me want to see “Friends with Kids” most was the cast. The ending is just about what you would expect it to be, but how it gets there is much more important. This is a comedy about the reality of romance, not the movie version of it.

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #3

Radio Days

“Annie Hall.” “Manhattan.” “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I could have gone with any of these timeless Woody Allen classics, so why did I choose “Radio Days”? It wasn’t an attempt to be original (“Annie Hall” is an easy choice, but it is a deserving one at that), but rather that “Radio Days” may just be the ultimate Jewish family comedy, and both a heartwarming and heartbreaking nostalgia trip.

Set during the 1930s and 40s, “Radio Days” is told in a series of vignettes that all connect back to the audio device that once ruled the world. Allen himself is never present onscreen, although he is the story’s narrator. A very young Seth Green is Allen’s stand-in onscreen under the name Joe. Joe obsesses over the radio so much that it starts to concern everyone in his family, especially his father (Michael Tucker). Joe is the youngest in a loud and rowdy household that includes an aunt and uncle and grandparents, as well as a family of Communists that live next door. His Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel, perhaps better known as Principal Anderson in “Billy Madison”) brings home a huge bag of fish everyday and eats them. Raw.

 Allen so lively brings about an era in which imagination was king. It’s funny to hear Joe’s parents complain that he’s rotting his brain away by sitting in front of the radio all day, and think that parents said the exact same thing about television decades later.

“Radio Days” is as much about the stars of radio as it is about the listeners. One in particular is Sally White (Mia Farrow) who has a difficult time making it as first, as listeners couldn’t see beautiful face but could hear her voice, which sounds exactly like Lina Lamont’s fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Luckily, one of these two people was actually able to make it.

Joe’s family, who spends all their time in Rockaway, and the radio stars, who spend all of their time at fancy parties, never come together. However, the idea Allen wants to bring about is that the radio brought these stars, these stories, into Joe’s living room, and they never left. That is the beauty of radio, of television, and of film: they make the unreal become a very real part of our lives. In that sense, Joe’s family came to life for me and almost felt like my own. However, arguments, while frequent for us, never amount to debating whether or not the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific.

While the movie’s end is sad in one sense, as the stars of radio realize they will not shine forever, it is also optimistic in that sense. When one star flickers and dims, another one shines, and a new opportunity comes about. Celebrities might not be famous forever, but the art they create makes them immortal.

“Radio Days” is that lasting artifact of Allen’s self-deprecating humor and a prime example of why the king of neuroticism can never be dethroned. While it is funny, it is also so realistic. If you’ve ever had more family members piled into your house than you can count, and you remember it as a terrifying yet hilarious experience, then you should pile every single one of those family members back together in one room and watch “Radio Days.”

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere: Who’s That Knocking at My Door

It is a rarity for even the greatest director to strike gold at the very beginning of their career. Few and far between have broken the amateur barrier (Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes, and The Coen Brothers are rare exceptions), but even when they don’t, future greatness can be seen in a scrappy debut effort. “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” the very first movie made by Martin Scorsese, is not the kind of seamless masterpiece he would late go on to make, but it foreshadows a career steeped in Italian-American culture, New York City, and crushing Catholic guilt.

“Who’s That Knocking at My Door” has all of the signs of a film school effort: blatant symbolism, aimless dialogue, and rough cuts. Indeed, Scorsese began making this movie while he was a student at NYU, and he continued working on it even after he graduated. The then unknown Harvey Keitel stars as J.R., a young Italian-American hoodlum who hangs out with a pretty volatile group of guys, yet that doesn’t stop him from going to church to pay penance.

J.R. is the embodiment of what Scorsese must have been like in those days: he seems to only know what he sees in the movies and what he learns in Church. This basically entails knowledge of every John Wayne movie. To him, “The Searchers” is like another kind of gospel. His dialogue about Wayne is some of the finest, most naturalistic writing in any Scorsese film.

The girl in the movie (Zina Bethune), simply named The Girl, becomes J.R.’s new object of affection, and his love with her ends up testing everything else he holds dear. After their relationship buds, Girl reveals that she was once raped in a chilling flashback sequence that resembles what a filmed version of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” would look like. As a man loyal to his Catholic background, this makes him question his own faith, and what is really most important to him in his life.

This revelation does not come until very late in this film’s short running time. “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” does not contain the typical kind of plot. Rather than an event inspiring a series of actions that effects everyone, it is instead about an event inspiring a series of emotions that effects just two characters.

“Who’s That Knocking at My Door” might feel inconsistent and messy because it seems less like an attempt to capture a fully realized story on screen but more like someone trying to capture the mixed emotions that make up their life on film. The irony of the sunny, happy-go-lucky music that plays in the credit sequence against footage of a man being beaten shows that this type of aggression was just a way of life where Scorsese grew up. The casual attitude of this scene is still shocking to watch. Meanwhile, playing “Who’s That Knocking?” during the end sequence in the Church as the camera pans around all of the different representations of Jesus makes it feel less like a solemn walk through a holy place and more like a ride at Disney World.

Watching Scorsese’s work on “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is like watching a diamond in the rough that would soon become one of the f***ing brightest gems in the history of cinema. From it, you can see where the basis of “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull” amongst many others came from. Even “Hugo,” which is about a child who is much more eccentric than J.R. can draw its obsessive conversation about film back to Scorsese’s debut.

Film can be one’s attempt to show what they believe matters most in life and with “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” Scorsese was establishing everything he loves and everything he values. And while his big debut certainly isn’t flawless, we haven’t been able to leave his side since.

Movie Review: Gangs of New York

Of all of the stunning images from “Gangs of New York,” one that sticks out is a shot that starts off on street level, and continues to go higher and higher until the 19th Century style buildings become the shape of the island of Manhattan. Here is a city that, over the years, I’ve grown to know and love. Here it is, in a form like we’ve never seen before.

“Gangs of New York” is Martin Scorsese’s latest vision of the mean streets of his beloved New York. However, it takes place 100 years before the days of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” during Civil War ravished America.
The film starts off during a vicious gang war in 1848. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of respected Irish immigrant Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). On the opposite side is Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is the glass-eyed son of a Revolutionary War soldier who gushes with patriotism. He’s known as The Butcher not just for his day job, but for his weapon of choice.
As tensions rise between the Irish and the so-called ‘Natives,’ Bill murders Priest. Many years later, Amsterdam returns to a corrupt, Boss Tweed ruled Five Points and seeks revenge.
“Gangs of New York” shows Scorsese’s recent fascination with American culture wars, as this film can be seen as something of a counterpart to his recent “The Departed.” However, this film explores the roots of American diversity. It’s about the earliest days of bigotry, much of it rising from immigration. In a way, much of the situations and dialogue sound frighteningly similar to the current national conversation on immigration.
Adding on to this is the near accurate version of history portrayed. While Hollywood will often portray history through a myopic lens of clean precision, Scorsese takes no shame in showing the filth, the blood, and the anger that shaped this era. Extra special attention is paid to the stunning sets. At times, it can distract from actual plot depth, but it definitely helps raise the story’s level of believability.
Of course Scorsese’s direction is excellent, but what stands out most is Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher. He is truly the best actor of this generation, and the carrier of the method torch. He steps into the character and makes him both a blood-thirsty savage and a patriot feeling betrayed by a country he helped defend. He may be racist, but his feelings can be understood. Not to mention, all he has to do is sharpen a knife, or just squint his eyes to become the most intimidating presence in the film. He basically steals all chance for any other actor in the film to shine.
Now, back to Scorsese. What makes Scorsese one of the great directors of cinema is that he knows how to handle violence better than any other director. Of all of his films, “Gangs of New York” may be his bloodiest. While most directors might show someone being stabbed and barely show the consequences, Scorsese slows things down and allows us to see the horrible, dehumanizing consequences of each kill. Later, after another major battle, the cobblestone streets turn into a red river. To Scorsese, violence isn’t something to cheer on or admire, but rather something to be sickened by. Meanwhile, the aerial shots of the war dead are reminiscent of the sprawling images of the dead in “Gone with the Wind.”
Upon its release, “Gangs of New York” divided audiences right down the middle. I believe it is a minor masterpiece; it doesn’t reach “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull” heights, but its certainly no sign of a Scorsese downfall either. The film runs over two and a half hours yet races by as Scorsese explores his favorite themes of honor, religion, and family. Like in any Scorsese film, the backdrop, cinematography, editing, and score of “Gangs of New York” is extremely well detailed and masterful. They portray the chaos of the era in the same way that each room in “Goodfellas” distinguished when exactly Henry was doing well or doing poorly. And while some have criticized that too much is covered at once, it all serves to cover the chaos.
Part of the problem could be in the story itself. While Scorsese at first creates the interesting idea that while Bill hated Priest, he had a deep respect for him. Once the conflict between Bill and Amsterdam arises that inexplicably seems to disappear from the film together with little explanation. Many scenes also seem pulled right out of the revenge film playbook. For example, the scene where Amsterdam saves Bill’s life so he can later murder Bill himself is pulled straight from “Once Upon a Time in the West.” A little clarification is never a bad thing.
But, these are just minor flaws. Overall, “Gangs of New York” exceeds its epic counterparts (mainly “300″) in creating a vision of the past that’s exciting and fascinating without actually losing a grip on the history part. It’s a beautifully made history lesson about the birth of a nation and a bitter love letter to a city that spawned one of the greatest directors of all time.