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HALFTIME REPORT: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

Latest posts by Nathaniel (see all)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Hang me, oh, hang me. I’ll be dead and gone.
Hang me, oh, hang me. I’ll be dead and gone.
Wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the laying in the grave so long
Poor boy, I’ve been all around this world.

In 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis was met by film fans with an enthusiastic array of reactions that has become fairly familiar for a new Coen Brothers film (particularly the films they’ve released since 2007’s No Country For Old Men). There’s the poring over their meticulous technique, the debates about where the latest film ranks among the brothers’  oeuvre, speculation about how much the film can be read as personal expression by the famously puckish filmmakers, the debates about how despairing or cynical the film’s worldview truly is AND the attendant speculation about how much of that is sincere and how much is a joke on audiences. This last one is something of an evolution of the charge levied against them from the beginning of their career that they hold their characters (and possibly their audience) in contempt. Like A Serious Man, with its story about midwestern Jews in the 1960s that gave critics the purchase to finally analyze a Coen picture with an eye to their biography, Inside Llewyn Davis‘s story of a man adrift after losing a close friend and artistic partner offered a critical approach that allowed people to sidestep whatever lingering questions they still have about the Coens’ sincerity. Here was a movie working through the guys’ feelings about an imagined scenario where one of them died, leaving the other to muddle on alone. It’s a pretty satisfying reading of the film, and it suggests that we can perhaps also map the movie’s take on art, commerce, and the life of an artist as a similarly personal exploration by a couple of filmmakers who have a strange and interesting outsider relationship with Hollywood. But watching it now, after those initial conversations have subsided, I was struck by the way that it employs a classic Coen Brothers shaggy dog comedy of errors structure to tell their most emotional story, crystallized in perhaps the most devastating moment in any of their films. Continue reading HALFTIME REPORT: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

HALFTIME REPORT: Four Lions (2010)

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

Latest posts by Nathaniel (see all)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

It’s become part of the conventional wisdom about Paddy Chayefsky’s great 1976 satire Network that modern viewers will miss the comic exaggeration in its depiction of a craven and amoral American media landscape. The darkly absurd predictions it makes about ratings-hungry producers and networks have been rendered commonplace (or even quaint) by reality in the last four decades. I had this in mind when sitting down to watch the woefully under seen terrorism comedy Four Lions again for the first time in a few years. I figured the character comedy would still work, but I wondered if the recent horrifying attack in Paris and incredible brutality of ISIS, along with their bizarre success in recruiting westerners, would render the film’s group of buffoonish Al-Qaeda dead-enders similarly quaint or outdated. Continue reading HALFTIME REPORT: Four Lions (2010)

HALFTIME REPORT: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

There comes a point in all artistic endeavors when the project that one has toiled over must be turned over to the public to do with it what they will. This can have mixed results, particularly when one’s endeavor is ironic or satirical, as many rappers can attest (to take one recent example: Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Swimming Pool (Drank)”, an indictment of alcoholism in the projects, became a party anthem for white bros. And, to be fair to the white bros, it is really catchy, in a lethargic sort of way.) In the realm of film, Martin Scorsese may be one of the most co-opted artists of his time, whether it’s his method or his message. His seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver was condemned on release as a glorification of the violence it abhors and his elegiac, thoughtful religious picture The Last Temptation of Christ was picketed, sight unseen, by Christian groups as blasphemous. Both films are now rightly regarded as classics but suffice to say, the man knows a bit about having his work twisted by consumers. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised by the reception of The Wolf of Wall Street, his twenty-third feature film and one of the higher-grossing of his career.

To be fair to his critics, the movie walks an extremely fine line between inducing rage and adrenaline. While watching it, I shifted how I felt about it from moment to moment; it’s so much fun to experience and yet everything that happens in it is ugly. What might be most infuriating about it is that its central figure, Jordan Belfort (played by a game Leonardo DiCaprio,) is, essentially, a bro-tastic good time guy that’s easy to latch onto. He’s not particularly smart but he knows how to harness the energy in a room and game a vulnerable system. And boy are the United States’ financial institutions vulnerable. This film came out a scant five years after the Great Recession started and depending on what side you were on (or wanted to be), The Wolf of Wall Street plays very differently. Much like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before him, Belfort could be seen as either a savior or a destroyer, someone to aspire to or despise. Scorsese, to his immense credit, never plays his own hand openly though if one knows anything about him, it’s not difficult to figure out where he stands. Still, that didn’t stop many viewers from seeing Belfort’s splashy exploits as an endorsement of their own repulsive behavior.

The other major critique of the film was its length but in hindsight that seems purposeful, the rigor of the runtime matching the strenuousness, often amphetamine-aided, of its subject until it feels like a party everyone should have left a long time ago. For those who think of DiCaprio as a mechanical, joyless actor, I highly recommend a YouTube viewing of the sequence where Jordan is on Quaaludes, an incredible feat of physical comedy that acts as a bit of a funhouse mirror to the contorting of his more self-serious performances. By the end you’re practically begging for this prick to finally get his comeuppance but this is America and it doesn’t work like that, as anyone at Goldman Sachs can tell you. In many ways the closing shots are some of Scorsese’s most disturbing: the camera turned back on the audience, gazing on Belfort, now a motivational speaker, in adulatory awe. There are plenty of monsters in Scorsese’s back catalogue but Jordan Belfort may be the scariest because he’s a villain without a moral compass – even the gangsters of Goodfellas had a code – and he knows for most people that doesn’t matter if you’re saying something they want to hear.

HALFTIME REPORT: Attack the Block (2011)

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

Latest posts by Nathaniel (see all)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

For monster fans, creature design in the 21st century has been something of a mixed bag. Digital animation has freed designers from the shackles of the human form, limitations in terms of textures and fur, and even the bounds of physics altogether. In order to provide a grounding in reality for all these pixels, designers and animators often talk about looking to real animals for physiognomic principles and behavior. Reality is the goal, and much effort is expended in simulating the way joints interact or how skin stretches across muscles. This is maybe best exemplified by Neville Page’s muscly multi-limbed creatures for movies like Cloverfield, Super 8, Avatar, and Star Trek. But these impressively realistic creatures often place an emphasis on the Real over the Iconic. It seems silly to use a word like mundane when discussing such weird and impressive creations, but these creatures (with the feelings of sameness they can sometimes inspire) can miss that special charge that a truly iconic monster design can carry. Obviously, creating an iconic monster is much easier said than done, but it’s still worth celebrating when somebody pulls it off. And the aliens in Attack the Block, with their uncanny movements and simple-but-clever silhouette-and-glowy-bits aesthetic, stand out as the best of the decade so far. Using an inspired blend of suit acting (with invaluable work by movement coach and performer Terry Notary) and animation (both to enhance the puppetry and to create the aliens’ inky black, almost two dimensional look), Attack the Block‘s monsters are still so great they’re nearly enough to make it one of the best films of the 2010s on their own.

But watching the film in 2015 America reveals greater relevance than even a few years ago. The film is set in south London and directly addresses the specific cultural ways that young, mostly black, kids who live in council estate tower blocks (Americans, think housing projects) are vilified, and the societal issues at play are startlingly universal. After the opening, a mugging that wouldn’t be out of place in any reactionary genre movie from decades past, with a gang of black kids menacing a pretty white woman, it’d be easy to imagine the version of the movie that kills off these thugs in a pre-title sequence to establish the threat. Instead, when Moses and his gang run into the building where they’ve cornered a mysterious creature, they aren’t just slaughtered off-screen but instead emerge victorious, establishing a very different dynamic for the rest of the film. Instead of just following the story of the gang’s victim, Jodie Whittaker’s Samantha (a nurse who lives in the same tower block as the kids), the kids emerge as the heroes of the film. Cornish and his actors do a wonderful job of humanizing these characters, making them funny and hugely lovable without ignoring or excusing their worst behavior. This simple extension of empathy and respect feels almost radical when viewed in an America where we’ve had a truly horrible number of opportunities to witness the awful spectacle of the American news media greeting each new police shooting of an unarmed black guy with attempts to determine just how much the deceased had it coming based on their thuggish appearance or potential criminal background. The understanding and mutual respect that develops between Samantha and Moses is even more moving in this context, as is the conversation the kids have speculating about the government having “bred those things to kill black boys.” It’s not the case, but getting to know these kids we can see why it would feel like a possibility to them.

While it feels a little frustrating watching Attack the Block now knowing that Joe Cornish hasn’t yet directed another feature, there’s some solace in seeing ads for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that feature John Boyega front and center. His performance as Moses, which has that movie star thing of combining real acting and seemingly effortless charisma even when he spends so much of the film not saying much, marked him as a young actor to watch for anybody who saw Attack the Block in 2011, so it’s gratifying to know that a much bigger audience is about to see what he’s got.

HALFTIME REPORT: Margaret (2011)

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Strictly speaking, Margaret was never supposed to be a film of this decade. Principal photography began back in 2005 but ballooning budgets, disagreements between the studio and director Kenneth Lonergan over cuts, and multiple lawsuits had many wondering if it would ever see the light of day at all. By the time it received an extremely limited theatrical release in 2011, lead Anna Paquin was three seasons into her True Blood reinvention as an actual adult, and what was intended as a more immediate exploration of the emotions roiled up by the tragedy of 9/11 became a cinematic curio, sampled by critics and rubberneckers alike and mostly discarded as the year drew to its close, apart from a few “#TeamMargaret” diehards on Movie Twitter. While the critics may have been looking for a masterpiece and the rubberneckers hoping for a disaster, Margaret didn’t quite turn out to be either. What it is is messy, in the best possible sense — and the cult around the film, in particular the director’s cut that adds a half hour to the already bloated 150-minute runtime, has grown.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is nobody named Margaret in the movie. The title is a reference to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall” which opens with the line “Margaret, are you grieving?” and is read in the film by Matthew Broderick, who plays the teacher of the lead character, Lisa, a high schooler on the Upper West Side who is the inadvertent cause of a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. The poem and the film are about youth’s first reckoning with death and a realization of the world’s existence beyond themselves; when Lonergan wrote and conceived of the film, emotions over 9/11 were raw and even many years on it has a nervy energy, a sense that at any minute it might run off the rails. It unfolds in an operatic register in a way that risks turning off many viewers. But this is true to the film’s characters who may be “small” people but don’t live small lives, at least not to them. This is reflected in the film’s sound design, which is Altman-esque: the conversations of passersby are constantly muddying the main soundtrack, imbuing the city with a sense of liveliness that many other films would take as a given. And like Altman at his best, this is a generous film (perhaps to a fault), allowing every character, even the most minor ones, a voice and depth. The camera is constantly lingering on the New York City skyline, panning across gleaming buildings and slow motion citizens, as if to capture it all before any of the rest disappears. There’s something oddly refreshing about watching Lonergan spread his cinematic paint everywhere, even if it isn’t always conventionally satisfying.

It’s also refreshing to see a film grapple so fully with a young woman’s tumultuous coming of age. Lisa is a melodramatic, selfish person in the way most teenagers are melodramatic and selfish, and the realism of her character may be unpleasantly confrontational for some viewers; it can be difficult at times to watch how she manipulates and tortures those around her. The film’s true trajectory reveals itself as Lisa’s simultaneous wish to become a good person and realization of how often the world makes that challenging for adults. We never hear Lisa’s thoughts on the Hopkins poem; the camera cuts right after Broderick speaks her name. And anyway, how she feels about it will likely evolve. It’s part of growing up. Margaret, which experienced its own pains to get to the screen, knows that above all and is all the more rewarding for it.

HALFTIME REPORT: Young Adult (2011)

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Pop culture is both an immensely subjective and personal obsession. It can be difficult not to feel slighted when an artist whose work you’ve enjoyed goes in an unexpected direction. Perhaps no filmmaker experienced such an abrupt turnaround in the past few years as Jason Reitman, whose sardonic, satirical early work has recently given way to laughably out-of-touch melodrama, at least according to a lot of film critics, sometimes validating any lingering doubts they held over his earlier, snappier movies. I’ve yet to see either Labor Day or Men, Women and Children (and doubt I will anytime soon) but I remembered his 2011 feature Young Adult with great fondness and was curious to revisit it in light of Reitman’s sudden fall from grace.

Even in this age when unlikeable characters are popular thinkpiece subjects, Young Adult‘s Mavis Gary (played without an ounce of vanity by Charlize Theron) remains bracingly caustic. I was not popular in high school but the film was still primed to play on my greatest fears about myself as someone who moved away from a small town and still has the occasional bout of unwarranted contempt and pity for those who stayed behind. More often than I care to admit, I’ve flippantly told someone I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I still lived there, as Mavis does early in the film. “Yeah,” her friend says flatly, and unconvincingly. “We’re lucky we got out. We have lives.” In case the opening scenes didn’t make it clear, the credits drive the point home elegantly: Mavis keeps rewinding the high school mixtape her then-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) made her back in the day, to play “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub over and over. This woman is stuck in a past she believes is still her present.

Mavis, who ghostwrites for a Sweet Valley High-style book series, is on a mission to get back Buddy, now married and a new father. Starting with waking up hungover and interpreting an invitation to a baby shower as a cry for help, Mavis proves herself a delusional wreck: alcoholic, depressed, interacting with the world through a thin veil of disdain, unaware, or uncaring, that everyone can see right through it. In scene after scene the script (by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) mines this disconnect for discomfort comedy of a kind not often seen in American film, particularly with a female character as the catalyst. For a movie with a protagonist so ostensibly shallow, Young Adult is surprisingly complex, especially when it comes to the behaviors and influences that trap us in destructive cycles. As the film goes on it becomes clear that Mavis is painfully conscious of her own shortcomings. “Stand up for yourself,” she upbraids her ex’s wife in the climactic scene. “Why are you covering for me?” And yet it only takes one conversation with a starry-eyed local to spur her back on her previous path — at least temporarily. “Life, here I come,” the closing narration says. But it’s the image of Mavis’s busted car fender that lingers. Even if Reitman is done with such damningly ironic comedies, at least Young Adult endures.

Halftime Report: Winter’s Bone (2010)

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

This is our first installment of Halftime Report, in which your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Sitting down to watch Winter’s Bone for the first time since its theatrical release, I was most curious to see how Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn held up. In the years since she’s become a perennial awards favorite, star of multiple franchises, and America’s favorite “cool girl,” but her performance here is still bracing, alive with the sense of a major discovery. Playing Ree Dolly, a teenaged girl in the Ozarks in search of her fugitive, meth-cooking father, she exudes a toughness and sensitivity that she’s glossed up considerably as her profile has risen. I came away surprised by her anew and confident she’ll surprise me again soon.

The film itself remains one of the strongest of the new decade for the light it shines on the dark pockets of America, places most people would probably rather forget exist let alone spend any time in. But director Debra Granik demonstrates a meticulous attention to detail, from the detritus scattered over everyone’s yards to the secondhand clothes to the proper technique for skinning a squirrel, not to mention an unsparing but compassionate eye when it comes to the poverty the characters endure.

That same meticulousness is there in the plotting, too. At a brisk hour-forty, Winter’s Bone wastes no time, with a lean structure that recalls both ’40s noir and classical mythology. Tasked with ensuring her bailed-out father makes his court date or lose the family land, Ree’s dilemma could have become a by-the-numbers quest but Granik, and author Daniel Woodrell who wrote the source material, are interested in much more than that. This is a place of codes, not only of criminals or families, but between men and women too, and as Ree starts to navigate the world around her, the film becomes a fascinating inquiry into the power dynamics of this very particular corner of humanity. The women may answer the doors and the men may profess to have knowledge they’re not sharing, but it quickly becomes clear which gender is actually running the show and the climax plays almost like a grotesque initiation ceremony for Ree. But for most of the film she’s a young woman alone in an inhospitable environment; it’s a premise with inherent danger but Granik’s stripped down style refrains from pushing this too hard, preferring to showcase the starkness of the landscape and the emotiveness of Lawrence’s face rather than flashy technique. This was only Granik’s second feature film and while she did recently secure a release for a documentary, she’s yet to make a narrative follow-up. It’s one of the most disappointing, and damning, developments of recent years, and I hope to see another project from her before the decade closes out.