The directorial debut of Alex Garland – he who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, two of the finest genre films of the 2000s – is a fascinating beast for two reasons. First, it is not a particularly sterling work of writing at all, opting too often to tell when showing would be a better service, and uneasily dancing around some particularly flat-footed dialogue from time to time that causes the film to stumble over itself more often than is acceptable. Second, and this may prove the more important fact in the long haul, it is a shockingly forward-thinking, challenging work of direction from a man who has never formally directed before (although one can be sure he has osmosis-ed his fair share of tips and tricks from working with Danny Boyle, one of the finest stylists of the modern era). Part of the visual craft has to do with what I hope will be the big coming up party of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who consistently hints at the Kubricks and the Tarkovskys of the world without ever outright quoting them. But too much of what makes Ex Machina work is too tied into the framing and the mise-en-scene beyond the cinematographer that credit must be given where credit is due. Flaws aside, Garland has learned how to create a cinematic vision that is always, sometimes even in spite of itself, refreshingly cinematic. Continue reading
JC Chandor’s third film in four years, and possibly his best, firmly establishes him as a leading voice for a new generation of gifted filmmakers taking up the history of classic cinema and creating the future out of the past. His three films, a dialogue-heavy corporate thriller, a dialogue-free survival parable knowing desperation as well as quiet agony, and now a tone poem to a city in the guise of a ’70s-styled crime thriller, all owe an equal amount to the nervy, alert grit of ’70s cinema and add on a modernist, even impressionist edge to focus more on space and abstract mood to go with the concrete grime of his films’ physicality.
Certainly, he seems heading even further in this direction, confident here (as he was in his previous film) with moving away from the crutch of dialogue that somewhat hindered his debut directorial effort. His trek is all the more exciting because he hasn’t yet developed a narrative singularity, or even a commonality of tone. His films are joined by a focus on process as a means to define character, but they do not necessarily feel like the work of one director. If he is an auteur, he rejects the defeating sense of personal sameness and stuffy inflexibility so often prone to directors who stick to one style and theme without fail. He’s an invigorating breath of fresh air, a director ready to tackle anything with verve, panache, physicality, and poetry.
After an unusually long gap for the insanely prolific Coen Brothers (three whole years!), they make damn-sure they remind us why we wait with such anxiety and anticipation for each release bearing their sibling stamp. With fantastic attention to detail, a well-realized sense of place that is all too familiar yet curiously distant, and a surprisingly laid-back yet aching, distraught screenplay backing them, Inside Llewyn Davis is their best release since No Country for Old Men and dangerously close to one of their top five films ever. It works as a meandering tribute to the underbelly of the greasy, cut-throat New York folk scene, an homage to the freewheeling works of James Joyce and their ability to uphold the common man as a mythic wanderer, and a picaresque exploration of the the day-to-day doldrums of human existence that combines unaffected social realism and moments of more obviously filmic, signature Coen Brothers flights of subtle fantasy. It’s an altogether plaintive film, but a deeply felt one with cheer tempered by aimless loss that chills to the bone. Continue reading