Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.
A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.
In the wintry air of A Most Violent Year, a would-be business magnate named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) sports a handsome camel-hair topcoat. He’d like to achieve success the honest way, and that immaculate coat is like his shining armor. Problem is, this is 1981-era New York, the business is heating oil, and nothing stays clean for very long here. Writer/director J.C. Chandor is skillful with these details—this is a very intricate story—and quiet in his approach. Abel’s jacket is the flashiest thing about the movie.
Many people are milling around the Greek tourist sights at the beginning of The Two Faces of January, but our story will ignore almost all of them. It’s only the shady characters who interest us here. Con artists always have something at stake—exposure, the possibility of their past transgressions catching up with them, and suspense about their next game. Three of them meet in the shadow of the Parthenon: Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide knocking around Athens in the early 1960s, and Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), a stockbroker and his younger wife on extended vacation.
Patricia Highsmith, the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, hatched this group of expat swindlers, so there’s likely to be at least as much psychological game-playing as conventional suspense.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand), the latest by the Joel and Ethan Coen, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars this year. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen Bros. universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that saves those few who persevere. That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as a jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. Just don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over. The music, which T-Bone Burnett once again helped create for the Coens, is superb.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Tribeca, DVD, Digital, VOD), one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (it lost to The Great Beauty), is devastating. And I mean that in all the best ways. The story of a passionate love rocked by tragedy, it is both joyous and anguished, celebratory and sad. It’s set in a subculture of bluegrass aficionados in Belgium (who knew?), where it is practically love at first sight for banjo player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the original play) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who soon joins the band as the sole female voice in the male harmonies. When their child, a little girl showered with love, is diagnosed with a deadly illness, they face the crisis in very different, unharmonious ways.
Director Felix Van Groeningen breaks up the timeline, introducing the couple as the try to hold it together while their daughter undergoes hospital tests and procedures and then flashing back to their early romance to contrast with the contemporary story. The structure gets more fractured as it continues, amping up the anxiety and the urgency of their ordeal. But while the film doesn’t flinch from the heavy toll it takes on Didier and Elise and their relationship, this isn’t all about ordeal. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are compelling performers who invite you to invest in their lives and the band provides a community of support and love for them and their daughter. The music they make, all covers of classic bluegrass songs, overflows with joy, just as the romance that plays out in flashback. The triumph of Van Groeningen is wrapping the heartbreak and anger up in the love and the support and leaving us celebrating what was rather than mourning what’s lost.
Greenwich Village in the early 1960s is one of those American scenes that people love to romanticize: the flowering of folk music, the nurturing of the counterculture, a new generation speaking its own language, giant talents like Bob Dylan breaking out.
What a moment, what a place.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking brothers whose remarkable 30 years of moviemaking include Fargo and No Country for Old Men, aren’t buying the romance. Their film set in that Greenwich Village moment is seen without rose-colored glasses, with a hero who’s a self-centered jerk burning bridges like nobody’s business.
In Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s 1961, and Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac, late of Drive) has been bashing his head against the folk scene for a few years already. He crashes on friends’ couches, performs for a pittance at the Gaslight Cafe, and treats his women friends with a special kind of callousness.