Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

My 10 Favourite Coen Characters

10. Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), Burn After Reading: We don’t often get to see Brad Pitt being funny, but as Burn After Reading’s dumb blond, he’s hysterical. He’s charming, his enthusiasm is infection, and he’s dumb as rocks. But that little dance of his isn’t a meme for nothing.

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9. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), O Brother, Where Art Thou: Clooney feels loose and slick in this movie, with slightly wild eyes and patter to match. This one is crowded with memorable characters, and so many have juicy moments, but Ulysses is the beating heart with a zest for oral hygiene, and you have to love a man for that.

8. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: The film’s opening chapter draws us in with horseback song and fancy gun slinging. The two combined are a sight to behold, so well-choreographed you can only whistle along in admiration. But when sudden violence hits and the tone shifts astronomically, it’s a signal to us all that this film is going to take us for a ride.

7. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis: Llewyn is a gentle creature, writhing with pride, jealousy, determination, dejectedness, and so much more, always evident in the crinkles around Isaac’s eyes. It’s a heartbreaking movie in many ways, and less an ensemble than many Coen films, but Isaac, a relative unknown at the time, carried it, and sang like honey, so you’d want to curl up at his feet and purr yourself into sweet oblivion.

6. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), Hail, Caesar!: Hobie Doyle was Ehrenreich’s breakout role, playing a successful western movie star just starting to transition to more dramatic roles. His wide-eyed cowpoke ways are refreshing and unexpected in Hollywood, and Hobie feels guileless and forthright. He’s a genius with a lasso but it’s his signature flubbed line that every single person found themselves repeating as they left the theatre – “would that it were.”

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5. Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), The Big Lebowski: I challenged myself to pick only one John Goodman role, or else he easily could have taken over half this list. But Walter will always be near and dear to my heart. He’s a self-righteous, judgmental, controlling moron with a passion for rules without ever overthinking them. What’s not to love?

4. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Fargo: Undeniably an asshole, Macy makes us feel sympathy for Jerry, and even more amazingly, he keeps him funny, despite the fact that he just keeps digging and digging until he’s so far deep in the hole he can’t even tell he’s in a hole anymore. Jerry is riddled with anxiety, desperate to be more than he is, and just can’t seem to understand that you can’t be only a little bit bad. Once you crack the door, violence comes barreling in, and Jerry is laughably unprepared.

3. Edwina McDonnough (Holly Hunter), Raising Arizona: I just love how Hunter can swing between wild emotions in this – nurturing to violently defensive, ecstatic to complete meltdown. It’s emotionally exhausting to watch so I can only imagine how intense it was to play such a character, but that’s what makes Edwina so iconic. Raising Arizona is such a fun and funny film, but Hunter has the skill to keep Edwina’s need and her love pure and honest and painfully apparent.

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2. Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), The Big Lebowski: Lebowski is a philosopher at heart. So many wild and zany characters bounce off him in this film, memorably so, and in other hands, Lebowski may have been overwhelmed. But along comes Jeff Bridges, and he’s perfectly laid back, unflappable really, but still engaged in the world around him, still curious and questioning. It was so note-perfect a performance that it was instantly iconic, eminently quotable, and beloved to this day. What could possibly top it?

1.Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), Fargo: Thank you holy cheeses for giving us this backwards-talking, nine-month-pregnant, slow moving, fast thinking, admirable as shit character. The world needs Marge Gunderson, and we’ve been doubly blessed having Frances McDormand to play her. Is anyone else even worthy? Marge sees people on their blackest day, the world at its worst, but she does her part to make it just a little better, and then she comes home to dinner with her husband, cozy and domestic as all get out.

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Operation Finale

This movie is a tribute to the unsung heroes of post-WW2 Nazi hunting.

When notorious SS agent (the architect of the final solution, no less) Adolf Eichmann suddenly pops up on the radar, Israel puts a crack team of secret agents on the case. Peter Malkin, in particular, is the loose cannon of the operation, but ten short years after the war, emotions run high for the whole team because everyone who wasn’t in a camp personally lost someone, or several someones, or everyone to Germany’s ethnic cleansing machine.

MV5BNGQ0YmVkMWItOGVlYS00ZWE2LWFhOTgtYzk1ZTAyZGQ5ZjFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and company manage to pick up Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) thanks in part to his indiscreet son who still hates Jews all the way from Argentina. They sweat it out in a safe house. For safe travel they require Eichmann’s signature, and Malkin vows to get it. The interrogation is heated; Eichmann is emotionally manipulative and he knows exactly which buttons to push. The agents have agreed to bring him back to Israel for a public trial, but not killing him proves to be a very big challenge for almost every single one of them. Eichmann knows this trial is not likely to rule in his favour, so he delays endlessly, which is also to the benefit of the Nazi rescue party determined to find him.

Oscar Isaac is terrific, of course. Malkin plays it cool, almost sympathetic, but he’s always on the verge of an emotional outburst. Isaac draws a haunted man, bent under the weight of his own grief, and the loss of a whole nation. Ben Kingsley strikes the exact right chord – reprehensible. His hypocrisy rankles. I felt it so personally it was easy to feel for the agents and to admire them for their restraint. But overall, director Chris Weitz’s ability to humanize his characters makes for some very watchable performances.

The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are the best the film has to offer. Operation Finale is otherwise a little still, a little familiar, a little predictable. It has good intentions but you see them coming from a mile away.  At times it can be surprisingly complacent for a ‘thriller’. It’s an Argo wannabe that doesn’t quite achieve its potential, but it’s nice to hear from this side of history, and it’s fantastic to see Kingsley do what he does best.

 

TIFF18: Life Itself

If you watch Dan Fogelman’s This is Us, then you know what to expect from the writer-director: a love story to make you swoon, a family saga to make your heart swell, emotional manipulation to milk your tearducts dry. Life Itself is This Is Us on steroids, and with swearing.

Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) have the kind of love story only found in movies and imaginations. She’s wounded in a sexy way, he’s wildly devoted to her, they’re both unbearably attractive, he talks about his feelings, which are grandiose and pointed solely toward her, she doesn’t complain when he kisses her with stubble.

But – record scratch – this isn’t some ordinary rom-com, this is Life Itself! We can’t stop MV5BOTAwMjU4NjA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODgyOTY4NTM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_there. No, Dan Fogelman grows the concept to include generations that cross continents. The ensemble cast includes  Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris- Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Mandy Patinkin, and Jean Smart. Like his hit television show, Life Itself is not so much about the destination but the journey. Fogelman plays around with the chronology, as he does, and with an unreliable narrator and its delicious implications.

I love the casting. I loved seeing Jean Smart. Oscar Isaac was a stand-out for me. He’s playing Prince Charming, only sexy, and he sells it. Coming from almost anyone else on Earth I’m sure I would have been rolling my eyes but for Oscar I was nodding and tilting my head, and wanting desperately to touch him lightly on the forearm. Alex Monner was also really solid. His part isn’t huge, but he leaves quite an impact. And I loved that his story line shot in Spain was done in Spanish and subtitled in English. I think there’s been a trend in films lately to see more characters speaking in their native tongue, and I’m all for it. It worked really well here and I hope to see this trend continue.

But before you start thinking this is to good to be true, to be honest, I had some problems with the film. Specifically with the direction taken by some of the characters that just didn’t feel right to me. I admit those choices fit the narrative; Fogelman knew where he was going and he got us there. Does that excuse it? Ugh. I’m struggling because the movie gave me emotional release, I had such a satisfying, cathartic ugly-cry that I sort of want to excuse it anything. But the truth is that no, you shouldn’t shit on your characters. If you’re going to ask me to buy some pretty extreme things, you shouldn’t spend so much time letting me get to know them first, know them well enough to call bullshit when they suddenly start acting out of character.

In the end, fans of This Is Us are extremely likely to like this movie if they aren’t too shocked by Dan’s potty mouth. I liked it myself. I can’t help it! This movie hits you right in the feels and there’s no use trying to logic it away.

Annihilation

Kane’s been missing for a year when he suddenly turns up at the home he shares with his wife, Lena, hemorrhaging blood. He’s been deployed on a top-secret mission that Lena can’t fully understand even as she’s recruited to join the next one. Of the dozens of men deployed, Kane is the only one to return, and he’s just waiting to die of organ failure.

Three years ago, something mysterious happened to a nearby lighthouse, which has been enveloped in a “shimmer”, a danger zone inside which terrible things are happening and from which no one returns. The zone is growing daily, and their own city will be overtaken if they don’t figure it out soon. So Lena (Natalie Portman) joins the next mission, the first one to be all-female, an expert biologist but also just a wife wondering why her husband would sign up for a suicide mission. She joins a group of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) highly trained but with nothing to lose as they enter what is likely to be their last mission.

63a7237ca43826d1507503b739fc4d55Inside, every living thing has been transformed. Mutations have made some things astonishingly beautiful, and other things the stuff of nightmares (imagine an alligator-shark hybrid). And now those things are also taking on human DNA.

Director Alex Garland took on human uniqueness in Ex Machina and further explores the subject here. When they are reflected back on us in other living things, which of our traits make us truly special, truly human? It’s a scary question. Garland continues to excel in the creepy, quiet moments between the splashier, gorier stuff. His style throws us off-kilter even as the visuals delight. The audience is continuously confronted with questions to chew on while scary monsters breathe down our goose-pimpled necks. Alex Garland is clearly a talented sci-fi film maker, and even if you leave the theatre confused, you won’t be able to let it go.

For fans of the novel, by Jeff VanderMeer, don’t go in too attached. Garland chose not to re-read the book before embarking upon the script, so the movie turns out more a distant cousin of the book rather than a faithful adaptation. In fact, the details I remembered most from the book were absent; clearly Garland and I latched on to different themes. But the essence remains, the terror remains, the curiosity remains. Annihilation doesn’t exist just to scare you, it wants to challenge you. This is a bold film that doesn’t fit inside any comfortable Hollywood mold. The studio is crapping its pants because it think the movie’s too “cerebral” for us folk. But you know what? Embracing the unknown can be freeing. And exploring these concepts with women as our protagonists, free from macho bullshit, allow us to also experience these things for their beauty and their terror at the same time. Portman’s character is remote, unreachable. Rather, Thompson and Rodriguez provide the most emotional heft as their characters contemplate the most gorgeous and familiar of mysteries.

I left this movie shaken.

On Second Thought – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not a Star Wars fan. I knew about it peripherally, the way it’s infused into pop culture and stuff, but I’d never seen the movies and never cared to. But Sean has always carried a special spot in his heart for Star Wars, or for the original trilogy anyway. He was just born when the first one came out but as a little boy he was enamoured with the series, with the very concept of space cowboys, and swords made out of laser beams, and cool flying cars. And while I think he respected my stance on keeping Star Wars out of my life for the most part, he kinda sorta took advantage of me when I had massive back surgery two years ago. High on back pills, he screened all 6 movies for me, and I was ambivalent at best. I’m totally okay with these movies existing in the world and I’m  happy for anyone who takes joy from them, but they aren’t for me and never will be. But I still experienced vicarious excitement for Sean when The Force Awakens was announced. It felt like we waited forever to get our hands on that one, and it felt a little out of this world to sit in a theatre and watch that famous crawl go up the screen. Ultimately, though, Sean was disappointed by TFA. He felt it was a little too similar to a previous Star Wars film and couldn’t quite work up the same enthusiasm for this retread. But don’t think that didn’t mean our butts weren’t in the seats opening night for Rogue One. And again for The Last Jedi, of course, and this time, Sean was a little more enthusiastic.

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, steer away. Maybe check out Sean’s spoiler-free review instead, or my own of the original trilogy.

I was not. Enthusiastic, I mean. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on his boyhood nostalgia, and it wasn’t as if the film was without merits. I didn’t think it was bad, I just didn’t care all that much. And at two and a half hours, it was long and felt it, and I couldn’t help but sneer at the scenes that I thought of as bloated – that extended Finn/Rose casino adventure that never went anywhere in particular.

But later, thinking about this one scene between Luke and Rey, I reconsidered. “I failed him” he says of his nephew Kylo Ren’s defection to the Dark Side. No, she says, “He failed you.” And that’s when the movie really opened up to me and I started thinking of the film in terms of theme – that theme being failure. Triumphs are easy. Heroes are tested when things don’t go their way. Rose and Finn are not going to accomplish their mission but they never stop trying, they never stop believing, and that doggedness inspires hope in others. That mission was never as crucial as they believed. Vice Admiral Holdo had another plan in mind the whole time, and she orders the evacuation of her ship. But this plan fails too. The escape pods are picked off one by one and Holdo ends up sacrificing herself to save them. When she reveals to Leia that she’ll stay behind in what will amount to a suicide mission Leia says “I can’t take any more loss” to which Holdo responds “Yes you can.” Never mind that it feels like Laura Dern is speaking for us, the audience, who have so recently lost Carrie Fisher. It’s also a tiny admission by a formidable General that her job is hard, and weighing on her heavily.

Leia looks weary in this movie. The toll of each loss is written in the slope of her tumblr_oxl4isuDq51ruu897o5_540shoulders. But her unwavering belief in the cause encourages her to soldier on, as a Rebel and as a Leader – a figurehead who inspires others but also a teacher who is grooming the next generation. Poe seems to be a favourite of hers, though all agree he’s a bit of a hot head who prefers the shoot-em-up approach. Poe’s whole raison d’etre this film is to learn some hard lessons. He too must fail, and learn to put the Light first and foremost, ahead of even his own ego.

And perhaps it is Luke himself who needs most to learn how to continue on in the face of failure. Having failed his nephew Ben, who then serves under Snoke as the formidable Kylo Ren, Luke is so devastated and full of self-doubt he retreats. Not just physically, though he does completely disappear at a time when, arguably, the Rebellion needs him most. But he also retreats from the Force. He cuts himself off completely. And maybe it’s his fear that he’ll fail again that prevents him from giving Rey the help she needs.

In the film’s last epic battle, between the two men who seem to have failed each other, we must contemplate what, if anything, is Kylo Ren’s failure. Though The Last Jedi is a direct continuation from where we left off in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren seems to have grown quite a bit. He’s more self-assured and he’s more powerful. But he’s still prey to his own temper, which betrays him. He should have been able to pick up on Luke’s misdirection if he hadn’t been letting his rage dictate their interaction. The truth is, temperamental as he may be, Kylo Ren is a contender now. We’ve been underestimating him, and we’re not the only ones. But does he have a fatal flaw? Certainly, Kylo Ren has failed the Light. He’s failed his parents, and his heritage. But is he also failing himself? And if the answer is yes – does he have the means to soldier on?

Now we wait for Episode IX.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

ridley-hamill-last-jedi-trailer-ht-jef-171121_12x5_992It is a good thing that Disney did not try to stick a Frozen short in front of Episode XIII, which weighs in at a hefty 2 hour and 33 minutes not including ads and previews. It doesn’t help that much of that time is spent watching Poe Dameron try really, really hard to learn a fairly simple lesson. Poe got it on what by my count was the fourth try, during a battle that took me by surprise because I expected the movie to have ended before that fight even started!

So this was not the ideal movie to have dragged Jay to, with it being an unusually long entry in a nerdy franchise she has less than no interest in. At least trying to spot the rumoured William & Harry cameo kept her busy for a while. I hope.

For those of us invested in this behemoth franchise, this is a solid Star Wars film that changes things up a bit more than did The Force Awakens, though this one sometimes feels like it’s spinning in place. Still, being the Star Wars fanboy I am, I was more than willing to forgive a few extra scenes and a few too many contrivances because what this movie gets right, it REALLY gets right.

At the top of the “gets right” list are the Last Jedi. And  since Jedi is plural, that makes for multiple entries on the list.

First, Luke is actually in this movie for more than one scene and it’s the Luke we know from all three original films, for worse and then for better, and then for so much better. Bear with Luke as in the course of this movie he manages to transition (again) from whiny back-planet farmboy to ass-kicking robed avenger. It’s truly fantastic.

Second, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is really, really great for the second movie in a row. She is the heart of this third trilogy and for my money she’s the best Jedi we’ve ever had (because unlike Luke, Anakin and Ben Kenobi, Rey never had a whiny phase).

Third, we get a Jedi ghost appearance that was an unexpected bit of closure I didn’t even know I needed, as it’s one last advice-giving opportunity from master to student.  It will make you wish that Han Solo was a Jedi so he had a chance to pop up in ghost form during Episode IX to rehash the good old days.

Speaking of the good old days, it is bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher get a prominent role here. Great as it is to have Leia be the true leader of the resistance, her importance means Fisher’s death will leave a massive hole in Episode IX that can’t (/shouldn’t) be filled (CG stand-ins creep me out and should creep you out too). RIP Carrie.

It occurs to me that a two hour version of this movie might have been my favourite Star Wars of all, if they had cut out much of the Poe and Finn stuff (which are the scenes that inspired my earlier reference to spinning in place).  As it stands, this is still a good film that did not disappoint, and it might edge out Return of the Jedi for third place on my list, which is pretty damn respectable.

 

Suburbicon

Sean and I are in Venice for the Venice Film Festival. Last week we saw and loved Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which had us appreciating not only the lushness of the period (circa 1962, I believe), but also Del Toro’s refusal to completely excuse it. The 1950s are often given the nostalgia treatment in movies, coated in a thick gloss of fond memories with a healthy dose of forgetting the grim realities. This is a time period that inspires idiots to spout slogans like Make America Great Again, because that time period was actually quite bad for quite a lot of people. Del Toro’s film included some subtle nods to that fact, but Suburbicon is the movie that blows the lid right off it.

Suburbicon is the name of a town founded on the principles of an idyllic setting with all the conveniences of the city but none of the sordidness. The sprawling neighbourhoods MV5BMjExMjE5MDE4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzU0NTEwMzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1449,1000_AL_are safe, the schools are good, it’s a great place to raise a family. Except if you’re the Meyerses, who just moved in. They’re not welcome (being black and all). They’re apparently the very people all these “nice” white folk have moved away from the cities to avoid. The Meyers don’t do a darn thing to incur the slightest ill will, except have a darker skin tone, but still the wrath of the townspeople is rained down upon them. Determined to force them out, their white neighbours harass them and abuse them and generally make such a ruckus that no one notices the neighbours directly behind them.

In that house, Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife (Julianne Moore), his wife’s sister (also Julianne Moore), and his young son Nicky are being held hostage in a bizarre home invasion that leaves one dead and the whole family shattered. It’s just the beginning of a bloody series of events that get more and more lurid. It’s so suspicious that an investigator (Oscar Isaac) shows up at their door. But everyone else is so busy with their unrequited race war that no attention is being paid to the white family wreaking havoc.

It’s exactly the kind of satire-caper at which the Coen brothers excel. Incompetent criminals seem to be their specialty. Frequent collaborator George Clooney joins not only as a co-writer but as the director. He’s added a layer of social consciousness with deep, resonating roots. Suburbicon is slick and it entertains you to within an inch of your life. The cast is wonderful, and Clooney, being an actor’s director, elicits a startling performance out of Matt Damon, and a sterling one out of young Noah Jupe. This black comedy earned a lot of laughs at our screening – seemingly the darker things got, the more we laughed out of anxiety and relief. But this is a brutal story that rewards people justly for their crimes. At first it may seem like we’re flipping between two different movies – the obvious and the absurd – but upon reflection, I like what Clooney’s done with the juxtaposition.

Suburbicon is a little wild, a little uneven, but a whole lot of fun. It’ll be hitting theatres late October.