Saturday, March 15, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) and BEYOND OUTRAGE (2013); plus bonus Netflix Instant exclusive SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF (2014)

(US/France/UK - 2013)

Short on plot-driven momentum and long on atmosphere and richly-textured characterization, one's gut reaction to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS may be that it isn't top-tier Coen Bros., but it's still very good.  Though written and directed by the Coens, the film belongs just as much to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose contributions earned one of the film's two Oscar nominations (the other was for sound mixing).  The Coens and Delbonnel use a muted color palette to bring a snowy, slushy 1961 Greenwich Village to vivid life.  Inspired by the real-life Greenwich Village folk fixture Dave Van Ronk, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is dealing with the suicide of his performing partner and the tanking of his subsequent solo album.  He's homeless, crashing on the couches of area friends, including Jean (Carey Mulligan), who's part of a duo with Llewyn's friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and is carrying a child that might be Llewyn's or Jim's.  Through a series of mishaps, Llewyn's also taking care of a cat that belongs to his academic friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett).  Llewyn's a bit on the misanthropic side and doesn't always set out to be a jerk, but that's usually how he comes off, and the film basically follows him through one week of hassles, arguments, and letdowns, whether it's turning down royalties on a song in favor of the quick payday he needs to pay for Jean's abortion or having to carpool with two other musicians (John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund) to a gig in Chicago that goes horribly awry.  In terms of story, it's one of the Coens' slighter efforts, but where it really stands out is capturing the look and feel of a unique place and time, from the work of Delbonnel to the production design to the songwriting (Isaac, in what should've been a star-making performance, performs original songs by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford).  I also liked the recurring visual motif of narrow, claustrophobic hallways and the stunning interior of a massive Fred Harvey restaurant that's almost Kubrickian in its presentation.  While not on the level of a FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, nor the Oscar magnet that many predicted, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS feels like one of those films that isn't initially powerful but sticks with you and quietly works on you over time.  (R, 105 mins)

(Japan/France - 2012; US release 2013)

After leaving yakuza films behind following his underrated US crossover attempt BROTHER (2001), Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano (VIOLENT COP, SONATINE) spent most of the next decade--except for his 2003 ZATOICHI reboot--in personal art-house projects, most of which didn't connect with his audience.  2010's blood-splattered OUTRAGE was his "give the fans what they want" return to the yakuza genre, and while it possessed an extremely complicated plot that wasn't always easy to follow, it was enormously entertaining in the almost comedic way it kept presenting the same set pieces.  You could probably stage a drinking game over how many times a bunch of pissed-off Japanese gangsters would congregate in a room, hurl insults at each other until brawling and gunfire erupted, culminating in someone being obligated to slice off their pinky to atone for their disrespect.  The film was such a success in Japan that Kitano has returned with the sequel BEYOND OUTRAGE (or, as the onscreen title reads, OUTRAGE BEYOND).  Kitano again stars, under his usual acting alias "Beat Takeshi," as steely, ruthless gangster Otomo, believed dead by his former yakuza associates but actually incarcerated.  When a police official and a nightclub hostess are found murdered in a car dragged from the bottom of a river, the police decide they've had enough of the yakuza families overstepping the established boundaries of their cop/criminal arrangement.  Going against the wishes of his superiors and colleagues, Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) poses as a dirty cop to get on the good sides of both warring organizations--the Sanno and the Hanabishi.  The Sanno are ruled by Kato (Tomokazu Miura), who concedes most of his decision-making to his ambitious young right-hand man Ishihara (Ryo Kase), much to the resentment of the embittered old guard yakuza who don't like that it's all about pressure to meet the bottom line and long for a return to the glory of the good old days ("Fuck hedge funding!" one grumbles).  Sensing some discord in the ranks, Kataoka decides to spring Otomo from prison--he's there in part because his former underling Ishihara sold him out--and pull a vintage YOJIMBO by starting a war between the two yakuza clans.  Needless to say, much arguing, insults, brawling, and impromptu pinky amputation ensue.

BEYOND OUTRAGE has its moments but it feels too much like a stale retread not just of OUTRAGE, but of other, better Kitano yakuza films in general.  As a director, it seems like Kitano's just punching a clock on this one and as an actor, Beat Takeshi is offscreen far too much for what's ostensibly a Beat Takeshi vehicle (he doesn't even appear until 25 minutes in).  Most of the violence is confined to the last half hour and it's noticeably more restrained than some of the things seen in the first film.  There's so many double and triple crosses and conflicting loyalties that I doubt even Kitano can keep it all straight.  Still, when he's the center of attention, he's as much of a badass as ever at 65 (no one twitches more intimidatingly than Beat Takeshi), and it's great fun watching him fearlessly mouth off to powerful crime bosses.  But too much of BEYOND OUTRAGE feels like obligation and filler.  It's relentlessly talky and it could've easily lost 20-25 minutes and been a much tighter, more exciting thriller instead of the overlong, draggy one it is.  There's enough here for die-hard Kitano completists to enjoy and it's not a waste of time by any means (Kitano is smart enough to end it with a great final shot), but ultimately, one OUTRAGE was probably enough.  (R, 112 mins)

(UK - 2012; US release 2014)

Anybody remember Mike Figgis?  With his melancholy, jazz-and-rain-soaked British noir STORMY MONDAY (1988) to his Hollywood debut INTERNAL AFFAIRS (1990), and the devastating LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), which earned Nicolas Cage an Oscar, 1990s Figgis was poised to become one of the decade's top filmmakers.  Around the time of 1999's THE LOSS OF SEXUAL INNOCENCE, Figgis seemed to grow bored with conventional storytelling, and 2000's TIMECODE caused a bit of a stir at the time of its release for its unique four-frame split-screen, real-time structure.  TIMECODE is the kind of intriguing creative experiment that really only works once, but Figgis beat it to death in the redundant and borderline-unwatchable semi-sequel HOTEL (2002), which no one saw.  Figgis has always marched to the beat of his own drum, but since the forgettable Dennis Quaid/Sharon Stone thriller COLD CREEK MANOR--clearly a paycheck gig for the director--bombed in 2003, he's almost completely gone off the mainstream cinema grid, focusing on experimental short films, music videos, and opera documentaries, though he did contribute to the 2003 PBS series THE BLUES and directed one episode of THE SOPRANOS in 2004.  Now 66, Figgis has only made two narrative features since COLD CREEK MANOR:  2008's virtually unseen LOVE LIVE LONG, which still hasn't been released in the US, and SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF, which was released in Europe to mostly dismissive reviews two years ago and has only now turned up in the US as a Netflix Instant exclusive.  It's a terrible film, insufferably pretentious and unfathomably dull, with a noir-based premise that might've been fun and entertaining in the hands of say, an in-his-prime Brian De Palma, but Figgis is so lost up his own ass that the film is doomed from the very start, opening with a crawl about Karl Marx's "Participation Mystique" and the blurred lines between fact and fiction.  Before four minutes even pass, Figgis is already breaking out the BRADY BUNCH squares and a douchebag filmmaker (Eoin Macken) is blathering on about his "film within a film within a film."

Figgis abandons the TIMECODE quadrants around the same time he decides to ditch the notion of a coherent story, as German-born, London-based screenwriter Martin (Sebastian Koch of THE LIVES OF OTHERS) sees his latest script, an erotic thriller, put in the hands of arrogant director Greg (Macken), who casts Martin's daughter Sarah (Rebecca Night) in the lead role.  Sarah still lives with her father, who hosts a birthday party for her where he's approached by a French mystery woman named Angelique (Lotte Verbeek of the Showtime series THE BORGIAS), who offers him a joint and disappears.  When she's found floating dead in a nearby canal, Martin is a suspect since it also coincides with the 15th anniversary of his actress wife's (Emilia Fox) still-unsolved disappearance.  Martin is half-heartedly questioned by rumpled, wheezing detective Bullock (Kenneth Cranham), who seems more interested in getting feedback on his own cop screenplay.  Enter Therese (also Verbeek), Angelique's twin sister, who arrives in London to identify the body.  Therese stays with Martin and Sarah, leading to dark secrets, sexual tension and still, nothing much happens.  Lots of long scenes play out only to be revealed as scenes in Martin's script being filmed by Greg or as re-enactments with different actors in one of the films within the film or as a staging of one of Martin's lectures to his screenwriting class.  Professor Figgis frequently halts the action to flash things like "Character Is Plot" and the Webster's definition of "twin" on the screen.  At one point, Therese sits down to read Martin's latest script and on the page, it describes her sitting down and reading Martin's latest script.   SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF gets so bogged down in endless academic, deconstructionist, meta bullshit that it forgets everything else.  There's no mystery, there's no suspense, there's no eroticism, there's no character development...it's just a smug, meandering film-school exercise in anti-cinema that wastes Koch and a very good one-scene performance by Figgis regular Julian Sands as a sarcastically incredulous detective who takes over the case after Martin's criticisms of Bullock's script induce a heart attack in the aging, out-of-shape cop.  With cheap production values making it look like a 3:00 am Skinemax offering with less skin and, somehow, even less story, SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF shows the once-relevant Figgis light years removed from the triumph of LEAVING LAS VEGAS and strictly focused on pleasing what's since become his primary audience:  Mike Figgis. (Unrated, 107 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment