All Is Lost. Directed by J.C. Chandor. I was seriously annoyed by this film. Yes, I suppose Robert Redford deserves some credit for carrying the film entirely by himself, but there is no character development at all. We don’t know anything about the protagonist, other than the fact that he wears a wedding ring. We don’t hear him talk, except for a voiceover that opens the film and some intermittent cursing later on. Redford, identified only as “Our Man,” makes a number of crucial errors, most notably the fact that he sails alone 1,700 miles off the coast of Sumatra without the necessary food and safety materials in case of an emergency. Who does that? I mean, we have no idea how experienced (or inexperienced) he might be. Although he is clearly a senior citizen, there is no evidence that Our Man is a knowledgeable sailor. And why wasn’t he ever wearing a life jacket? Isn’t it common sense to put one of those things on… or even to have one on board? Don’t get me started on the scene where he accidentally sets a fire. Ugh. I think there’s a basic assumption that we’re supposed to root for Redford simply because he’s the only guy onscreen, but for me that’s not enough, especially when the film fails on so many levels. I am also totally flummoxed as to how and why Alex Ebert wrangled a Golden Globe nomination for his original score since the film’s music veers between as bland and lifeless as the cinematography and so overwhelmingly loud you can’t think (an issue I have with the sound design, I guess).
The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. This is a bizarre film, even by Baz Luhrmann’s standards. I’m one of the rare few who really enjoys the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel – which is actually a great Robert Redford movie – so this new 3D extravaganza doesn’t work for me. (In fairness, I saw the film on DVD rather than in the 3D theatrical run, but I can imagine what the experience would have been like.) The obvious highlights of this version are the costumes and the production design, both helmed by Catherine Martin. Some of the music also works exceptionally well, like Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” and Sia’s “Kill and Run.” The casting, however, is a series of misfires. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway is boring. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan overplay their characters, making little affectations more important than any real depth (especially Leo’s habit of saying “old spore” instead of “old sport”). Mulligan is problematic not so much because of her acting but because the screenplay makes her Daisy even less likeable than I remember her from the book. (Watch the scene near the end, when Daisy and Tom are aware of their butler talking to Nick on the phone, to get what I mean.) Isla Fisher never has the chance to shine as Myrtle Wilson, certainly not like Karen Black did in the ’74 film. Joel Edgerton is worst of all, using the wrong American accent for Tom Buchanan to make him sound like a Noo Yawk tough instead of an upper-class Chicagoan (albeit one with thuggish traits of a blue-blooded nature). If you like the glitz and glamour of Luhrmann’s aesthetic, you may find yourself enjoying Gatsby, but I don’t consider it the definitive film version. I’m not sure if there could ever be a “definitive” adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. I bet that no fan of the book would ever be totally satisfied.
Inside Llewyn Davis. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Considering the hype that this film got, I was disappointed by the end result. Oscar Isaac gives a layered performance as the title character, a man who feels real because of his many flaws, but every other character has just the bare minimum of screen time, which is often not enough to establish a real sense of connection with the audience. We get snippets of potentially fascinating figures, like Adam Driver’s goofy-but-likeable basso profundo vocalist, John Goodman’s sarcastic jazzbo and Garrett Hedlund’s Beat poetry-loving valet (for the Goodman character), but the Coens never stick around long enough to get more than a passing glance at these people. No character is done a greater disservice than Carey Mulligan’s foaming-at-the-mouth folksinger, a woman whose only narrative purpose is to scream at Llewyn about what a terrible person he is. The only time we get a sliver of anything else regarding her psyche is when she performs onstage with Justin Timberlake. The camera and an intensely white spotlight focus on Mulligan while we hear the club’s owner tell Llewyn about how much he wants to go to bed with her – a sad commentary on what Mulligan’s character might have to do in order to get anywhere in the business. For more perspective on this film (warning: there are spoilers), check out this Village Voice review written by Terri Thal, ex-wife of the late Dave Van Ronk, on whom the Coen brothers’ film was partly based.
Nebraska. Directed by Alexander Payne. I have already sung this dramedy’s praises, but it bears repeating: this is currently my favorite film of 2013. You’re not likely to find better performances than those given by Nebraska’s cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan, Melinda Simonsen… the list could go on and on since every face that populates the film, whether it belongs to a professional actor or to an ordinary citizen of the state, is a face with personality attached to it. I had seen only two other films by Payne prior to Nebraska, his earlier efforts The Descendants and Sideways; I’m not really a fan of Sideways and while I did enjoy The Descendants immensely (and cried a lot) when I saw it two years ago, I must say that Nebraska is assuredly the best of the three. You’ll not soon forget the haunting music or the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, so reminiscent of the greyish look of Peter Bogdanovich’s early 70s works.
Pacific Rim. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. It’s not weird that I prefer this sci-fi romp over some of the more arty fare offered this year, right? (I’m looking at you, All Is Lost.) Plenty of action, plenty of romance, plenty of giant robots (“Jaegers”) fighting giant monsters (“Kaiju”) in the Pacific Ocean. What’s not to like? Charlie Hunnam, for whom I have had a soft spot ever since his days on Judd Apatow’s short-lived sitcom “Undeclared,” makes for a handsome hero. (His American accent has improved slightly since then.) Rinko Kikuchi is more than his girl Friday; she fights alongside him in the humongous robot contraption, a man and a woman on equal footing in the fight against sea-beast domination. Idris Elba does a good job as the man running the Jaeger operation, while Charlie Day and Burn Gorman provide some wonderful comic relief as two dissimilar mad scientist types who eventually realize they have to work together if they’re going to beat the baddies. Ron Perlman also steps in (literally – his first scene shows off his awesome shoes before we see his face) as a raconteurial dealer of Kaiju organs. Best of all are the special effects and art direction/set decoration, the latter of which gives a gorgeous neon glow to the the film’s setting in Hong Kong circa 2020.
P.S. Since it’s December 25, here’s my favorite bittersweet Christmas missive in song form.
Tom Waits – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (Blue Valentine, 1978)