Short Takes: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Hunt, Mitt

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Inside Llewyn Davis- The Coen Brothers’ first film since 2010’s True Grit is sardonic and strange, and at times very moving.  The most apt description I’ve read about it was “Sisyphus gets a cat,” which perfectly encapsulates the existential yet playful journey that the title character (Oscar Isaac, robbed of an Oscar nod) is destined to be on forever.  Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, but not good enough to make a living at it.  He’s cute, but his personality is too prickly to be likable.

Thanks to a wonderful score with music by no less than T-Bone Burnett, this is the Coens’ prettiest sounding movie.  This is also one of their prettiest-looking (hat tip to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), capturing a dimly lit, antique vibe that feels perfect for Greenwich Village, 1961.  Grade: B+

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REVIEW: Post Tenebras Lux

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Post Tenebras Lux
Directed by: Carlos Reygadas
Written by: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres and Eleazar Reygadas

Carlos Reygadas has been building towards this film his entire career. His first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, were made by a young talent with a strong proclivity towards sex and violence and an almost spiritual worldview—films that remain impressive, but also feel like the work of a director still settling in. His next outing, Silent Light, took that spirituality even further and left behind the more provocative elements, crafting a film that was a bracing technical and emotional achievement. Post Tenebras Lux (which translates to “Light After Darkness”), far and away his best film, brings the luridness of the earlier work to co-mingle with the more religious and philosophical nature of Silent Light. It is also the director’s most personal film to date, offering a much more opaque and baffling vision than any of his previous work.

The almost unanimously cold reception says much more about the critics reviewing the film than it does about the director who helmed this vision. If we’re dealing with something that feels out of reach, intellectually or otherwise, it seems almost customary in the film world to immediately dismiss whatever is on the screen (or, in Post Tenebras Lux’s case, pan it as a “massive failure”). I offer a different assessment: this is a radical exercise, but also one that stands as easily the most inviting film Reygadas has made. It is a work of insurmountable beauty and mystery, and one that beckons the viewer inside its impossible world.

Post Tenebras Lux opens with two extraordinary sequences that could very well be the best Reygadas has ever filmed. The first shows a very young girl running through a field at dusk and naming off the roaming animals. The girl, Rut, is both actual daughter of the director and the fictional daughter of the central family here.  This announces the film’s almost home movie intimacy right from the start (his son is also featured.

As she is wandering, the sky starts to darken, rain clouds gather overhead, and an air of menace seems to take over the screen. The title flashes, one word at time, over the pitch-black rain clouds and crashing thunder. On a purely technical level, it is astonishing—reminiscent and on par with the sunrise/sunset scenes from Silent Light. After this remarkable scene, another one immediately follows: an animated Devil, seemingly arriving home from work, is seen creeping through a house at night carrying a tool box, and silently peeking into a child’s room. Though these scenes do not squarely fit in with the main narrative, they still have a whole lot to do with the thematic ideas on display.

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There are a few other scenes that also remain detached from the story (most notably, the English rugby match and the futuristic French orgy), but they also give the film its weight. It is deeply concerned with patriarchal domination, with family as a unit, with upper/lower class divisions as well as guilt and uncontrollable rage.

Some have labeled this as a mid-life crisis film, and I don’t think that is very far off. It is autobiographical in the most unsettling sense. The “main” story is about a family that lives in the Mexican countryside. The father is presented as a sex-starved and violent presence, brutally beating one of the family dogs to death in an early scene.

One of the things I found difficult to reconcile with in the director’s early work, notably Japón, was the animal violence.  Although the scene in Post Tenebras Lux is still brutal and rightfully off-putting, it is shown off-screen. He later admits that he cannot control his violent impulses, and his wife always seems to be tip-toeing around him, estranged and uncomfortable, as if something terrible is just waiting to be unleashed.

Through all of this, there is story concerning a worker for the family that is weaved into the movie’s tapestry. It is through this character’s connection to the family that Reygadas shows a strong class divide, as well as a division on a smaller scale in both of the families. The film seems to have a large slant towards collectivism (this becomes especially clear in the cryptic last line of the film) and working together for the greater good. Unveiling much more of the plot would be doing the movie a great disservice. The best scenes come through with such a surreal vigor that the element of surprise is best left retained.

Throughout Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas incorporates a strange fish-eye effect—apparently, a screw-up while shooting that the director and his DP Alexis Zabe chose not to correct—that is less disorienting than it is beautiful. It gives the outdoor scenes a ghostly radiance that feels at home with the dreamy atmosphere conjured up. Aesthetic decisions like this one show a filmmaker, often ridiculed for imitating one of the greats, taking bracing risks. This is a film that feels very much like something new and exciting, and if some of the ideas seem muddy or out of reach to some, it also feels like a deliberate decision and not a misstep. The negative critical opinion has lent it no favors, and it continues to be disregarded as some sort of misguided venture that is too ambitious for its own good. This further supports the unfortunate notion that cinema is meant to be plot-driven, to be easily digestible and glued to the same tired format. Post Tenebras Lux is art-house cinema at its most inspired—miss it, and you’re missing one the year’s great films.

Grade: A

REVIEW: Holy Motors

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Holy Motors
Directed by: Leos Carax
Written by: Leos Carax (screenplay)
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue

Leos Carax claims that Holy Motors emerged partly out of his rage not to be able to make all of the films he wanted.  It is not so much about cinema, he said, but that it speaks the language of cinema.  It is a weird, volatile piece of work to be sure, and it pays tribute to various genres while tearing down the conventions that hold them together in the process.

At every twist and turn of Holy Motors’ story we are made aware of the artifice present in the making of any fictional film.  It tells the story of a man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) who over the course of a day rides from appointment to appointment in his white limo and becomes a different character in a different movie at each one.  Weirdly, it has the same storytelling device as its fellow Cannes competitor Cosmopolis, even down to the white limo.

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REVIEW: Amour

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Amour
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke (screenplay)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and William Shimmell

Michael Haneke’s latest film is a good poster child for why mainstream movie audiences fear and avoid many foreign films; it is quiet, slow and relentlessly depressing.  After winning the Palme d’Or in 2009 for The White Ribbon, Haneke officially established himself as a “Cannes auteur,” a director whose latest work would forever and always have a place in the festival’s cannon.

Amour is wondrously, deliberately hopeless.  Its depiction of an elderly woman’s slow, painful crawl toward death after suffering a series of strokes is not peppered with melodrama or any sort of dramatic flourish.  Haneke seems to think this would make the situation too comfortable, too much like a movie.  The goal of this film is to show the situation in as realistic light as possible, but from a removed distance.

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CANNES REVIEW: Mud

Mud
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols (screenplay)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon

American swamplands were a preoccupation of several films at Cannes this year, including The PaperboyBeasts of the Southern Wild and Mud, the latest film from up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols.  Mud is the story of children who discover an outlaw living on a small island off the coast of their town.  They decide to help him reunite with his girlfriend and escape from the hired thugs who are after him.

The movie follows a fairly straightforward premise and is nothing really new in terms of structure.  Then again, neither was Nichols’ first feature, last year’s Take Shelter, which debuted to much critical praise and gave him the momentum to make this film.  He is a director of atmosphere and off-beat execution.  

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CANNES REVIEW: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg (screenplay), Don DeLillo (novel)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon and Paul Giamatti

All this modern billionaire ever wanted was a haircut, though in Cosmopolis it becomes quite clear that he pretty much has everything else a person could desire.  David Cronenberg brings his typical visual menace to this deeply intellectual examination of the one percent, staging what amounts to little more than a series of conversations as increasingly intense verbal battles.

When Eric (Robert Pattinson) untints the windows of his hyper-modern limousine, we see an outside world that is coming closer and closer to collapse.  He of course is numb to everything but his own concerns, a simple haircut used to exaggerate how miniscule they are in relation to everything else.  As he talks (and talks and talks) to his girlfriend, his prostitute, his financial adviser and a myriad of others, it becomes clear that there is a pent-up frustration that is slowly being unraveled as the economy and his fortune near demise.

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CANNES REVIEW: On the Road

On the Road
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen

Too much goes wrong in the movie adaptation of On the Road that what it does get right  is overshadowed almost completely.  In adapting Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel, the time period is completely lost amid a cast of venerable modern actors who are cluttered together on the screen as if it would be a felony to exclude someone who was in the book.

At almost two-and-a-half hours, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera do with this story what many other bad book adaptations do: they drag things on for too long.  I haven’t read Kerouac’s book, but as many people I know who’ve read it feared, his stream-of-consciousness writing style does not translate very well.  Much of the screenplay is very well-written, to be sure, but the complete lack of atmosphere drains them of much of their power.

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