Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

The Great Gatsby

Come out you Baz Luhrmann; come out and fight me like a man

gatsbyDespite anachronistic and invasive music, Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – considered one of the Great American Novels by many (myself not included) – is more or less scene-by-scene accurate when it comes to story events.  This does not make a movie a “good adaptation,” however.  Two elements makes a good movie adaptation of a book: 1) the understanding that books cannot “become” movies, and that a movie adapted from a written work must stand on its own as a unique piece; and 2) a basic (or preferably advanced) understanding of the thematic material, i.e. what the book is “about.”  This film is more hot-and-cold in that area, though not as overt as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

I won’t hash out the entire plot this time, because you do not need me to.  Leonardo DiCaprio appears as the titular Gatsby, a former soldier living as a wealthy socialite on the East Coast in hopes that his old lover, Daisy Buchanan, will show up at one of his unbelievably lavish parties.  She doesn’t, but her cousin Nick (Toby Maguire) does – am I hashing out the plot? Apologies.  I’ll stop.  The first bit of irony we’re fed is the title, specifically the word “great,” and this is where Luhrmann gets it wrong.  Much of the point of Gatsby is that the most morally corrupt characters are the ones idolized, and that the masses become obsessed with the most superficial garbage (i.e. the incredible parties, the glitz and glamor, the alcohol and whoring, etc.).  Fitzgerald’s inclusion of the word “great” in the title was meant to reflect this irony on the reader, and to invite us to look smugly upon the inhabitants of the novel who just don’t seem to reach the conclusion that the readers do.  In the novel, Nick is much more savvy to this knowledge than Maguire’s character in the film – one major difference includes his placement in a sanitarium, wherein he relates the story’s events to a doctor and eventually writes a manuscript called “Gatsby,” which he eventually changes to the title of the novel after adding “The Great.”  This injects a bit of narrative poison into a film that almost gets it right: Nick, as the narrator (not as a fictional representation of the reader, mind you) is supposed to realize (as he comes much closer to doing in the text) that Gatsby is in fact not great.  No one in this story is.

The other major missing element is that of “Owl Eyes,” a minor but very important character who appears in two scenes of the novel.  The above themes are in some ways conveyed through this character – a bespectacled man encountered by Nick in Gatsby’s library – who expects Gatsby’s books to be nothing but hollow covers (for purposes of giving the illusion of a great library) and is surprised to find that they are all real books.  Owl Eyes comments that Gatsby has mastered something similar to theatre – the elaborate party itself is a fabrication masking an ulterior motive – and suggests that everything in Gatsby’s life is mere illusion.  Thus, the “great” in the title feels similar to a moniker a mediocre magician might possess.  Instead, the film spends lots of time (and real-life money) on the glamorous parties and never stops to remind us how much of a sham they are (nor does it respect us quite enough to allow us to figure it out on our own).  In the end, Nick realizes that the people of the West (the entire main cast) are completely unable to jive with the values of the East, and that Gatsby’s lifestyle – which so closely resembles the exemplary “American Dream” (also a sham, represented by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock) – is an illusion in and of itself, because Gatsby’s dreams are dead and gone before the story even begins.

The movie does include the billboard featuring the bespectacled eyes of forgotten oculist T.J. Eckleburg, which serve as a sort of uninvolved “observer God” who sees everything but does nothing to intervene or impart advice (much like the Owl Eyes character, who comes with some Lost Generation subtext as well).  The connective tissue between the character and the billboard, however, is never explored, nor is the meaning behind the fact that this billboard watches over the shittiest part of town.  But wait – I said that books cannot be “made into” movies, so some things get left out, right?  Sure, if your biggest concern is time.  But The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and what’s left out here is the most basic understanding of Fitzgerald’s themes.  Look at 2012’s Anna Karenina for an example of a film that (mostly) did a respectable job with its source material while creating a visual adaptation that was, in many positive ways, its own piece of art.

The despicable characters are still despicable, however, which is right in line with the novel.  Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who goes on histrionic rants and says boring non-applicable racist stuff (which seems inserted simply because a period piece can get away with it), does all of the bad things he does in the novel, including getting Gatsby killed, though in the movie it’s spoiled (don’t you dare call it foreshadowed) far too soon.  At the very least, Nick realize that Tom and Daisy are horrible people who rely on their money to save them from every situation.  Bafflingly left out is Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), one of the only likeable (and only in minor ways) characters in the story.  Elizabeth Debicki, who has only appeared in one movie previously, plays Jordan with such confidence and adventurous intrigue that her lack of involvement later in the story is nothing short of infuriating.  While DiCaprio’s performance (especially his completely organic-sounding “old sport” dialogue) is impressive as ever, Debicki is the highlight of the cast.

I’m just waiting for someone to screw up Absalom, Absalom! next.

The Great Gatsby (2013); adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; directed by Baz Luhrmann; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carey Mulligan. 

Shame

Day after day, more of the same

Steve McQueen’s Shame is rated NC-17, which I suspect has contributed to its absence at the Academy Awards this year.  Additionally, Michael Fassbender, who has won several awards for his role as Brandon Sullivan – including the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival – has been omitted (along with the much-deserving Michael Shannon) from the Best Actor category.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it seems the Academy is okay with Nazis (Christoph Waltz’s Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds) but not with “masturbators.”

Surely we can attribute the rating to the film’s nudity, but I find myself wondering if a film involving a lead female character with as many nude scenes as Michael Fassbender receives here would have been a hard R.  It seems to me that society at large is comfortable with the female form, at least as far as objectification and (to a lesser extent) admiration, and in ways, it’s always been – just look at those ancient statues and age-old paintings in every art gallery and museum, created by the great sexists of every age, which depict women sitting and reading half-naked, combing their hair in the nude, flashing impossibly unrealistic breasts.  Men, though.  When there’s a naked man in the room, regardless of how much exercise he does, there’s always something that no one wants to talk about – those unsightly lumps of flesh swaying to and fro, that shrub of uncontrolled hair.  At some point, every man must pray that women never realize how ugly we are (and I mean this to be funny; it’s nothing compared with what women have had to deal with due to the expectations set forth by their artistic depictions throughout history).

Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a loner with a nice apartment and a cushy job that not only allows him to slink away without his coworkers noticing, but apparently provides him with enough disposable income to be able to throw a perfectly functional laptop into a plastic bag and leave it for the trash collectors.  By night, Brandon prowls Manhattan in search of anything – or anyone – who can satisfy his ardent sexual appetite.  I hesitate to call him a “sex addict,” however, which seems to be the buzz phrase for this movie, because that’s a medical term (which at the very least would require Brandon to identify a problem and seek help), and the story does not revolve around (nor even hint at) his desires to stop.

Instead, the film seeks to dig into Brandon’s lifestyle as a whole and see what stimuli will affect it, specifically after the appearance of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  In this way, the film follows a standard Rat-in-the-cage model – that is to say, planting a character and a rat in a cage together and forcing them to square off, which can lead to a number of conclusions: 1) one kills the other; 2) they kill each other; 3) they become friends and leave the cage together; and so on.  In this film, we bear witness to several conflicts that sum up the film’s drama, the most prominent of which are Brandon vs. Sissy and Brandon vs. Himself.  Once Sissy comes to town, begging Brandon to let her stay in his apartment while she performs singing gigs in the city, she paints him into a corner.  All of a sudden, his apartment doesn’t seem so big.  In addition, his lecherous boss (James Badge Dale) takes a superficial interest in her, which introduces a subconflict: Brandon vs. his boss.  In his dealings with every person and situation forced upon him, we sense that the overarching interior conflict is Brandon vs. Intimacy, exemplified in two chief ways: Brandon finds pleasure and release in sexual encounters with strangers, as well as in his nightly perusal of internet porn, but avoids talking to his sister, who seeks a meaningful personal relationship with him, at all costs.  They are one another’s only family.  Later, when he attempts to sleep with a coworker who displays a real emotional connection with him, he’s unable to perform.

Michael Fassbender gives his bravest, most honest performance since McQueen’s Hunger and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, bearing not only his body, but the raw essence of his character.  Carey Mulligan bears a nearly equal burden in Sissy, breaking her self-described “staunch feminism” concerning nude scenes, and singing her heart out in a heart-squeezing scene involving a somber rendition of “New York, New York.”  The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is at the story’s core, and although we are never allowed to know what happened in their childhoods to create the dynamic they have now (they don’t budge at seeing each other naked, they have stark reactions to the other’s touch, Brandon cries when he hears her singing, etc), we push for them, hoping their respective imperfections can somehow mesh, somehow stop getting in the way of what could be the one healthy relationship either of them has.  What we do know is that they both have a history of self-abuse: Brandon’s sex life has become more function than fun, his penance for something we never learn about, and by his facial expressions during the final few orgasms he has in the film, we get the feeling that he’s no longer enjoying himself (has he ever?).  Sissy’s problems are more subtle.  As Brandon’s boss flirts with her, he touches her wrist and expresses surprise.  We don’t see what he sees, but Sissy’s reaction – “I was bored when I was younger” – gives away multitudes.  This scene, coupled with the fact that she was wearing a hospital bracelet when she showed up at Brandon’s place, brilliantly foreshadows what will be the story’s major turning point.

Perhaps the nature of Brandon’s addiction doesn’t matter.  An addiction to bodies and bodily functions rather than a drug, however, serves the underlying themes better: we get the sense that Brandon doesn’t even consider himself worthy of caring for another human being, and in the end, he is presented with two major decisions, giving him the chance to patch some things up, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that he himself had a problem in the first place.

You can count this film’s scenes on three hands.  The best ones are nearly endless, sticking with one shot (static, tracking, and otherwise) for minutes at a time, neither cheating the characters nor the audience of a single moment, a single change in facial expression, a single tear.  Signs on the subway often ask what we’re asking (or what we wish the characters would ask).  Shame is a film that shakes the basic film storytelling formula in that it does not prepare itself for any reasonable conclusion, and therefore does not reach much of one.  It does, however, present a conclusion, and if there was ever a movie in which the phrase “presentation is everything” applied, this was the one.

Shame (2011); written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Drive

How about this?

Drive is the grindhouse film of this generation  (I haven’t yet boiled it down to exact mathematics, but it seems film generations are akin to turtle years).  It’s a Man With No Name story directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, and it’s something of a surprise.

Unless you’ve been under the celluloid rock, you’re no doubt aware of the up-and-coming Ryan Gosling, who has starred in multiple films this year and will star in the sure-to-receive-several-Oscar-nominations The Ides of March, alongside George Clooney, which opens next month.  Gosling plays the protagonist of Drive, a literal Man With No Name credited only as “The Driver,” and Refn goes to painstaking lengths to avoid having other characters speak his name.  In proper MWNN fashion, the Driver apparently appeared out of nowhere one day, asking for a job at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled mechanic with a bad leg.  Seeing the Driver’s talents, Shannon gave him a job on the spot.  The film’s narrative begins while the Driver is wearing three separate hats in his life: he does stunt driving for movies, works at the garage, and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  He barely speaks and has no visible ties to anyone, except maybe Shannon, who treats him as a sort of adopted son.

After a wonderful, non-animated car chase that has been compared to the likes of Bullitt (a prerequisite to watching this film), we find the Driver bumping into his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).  She looks after her young son while her husband is away at prison, and for an undisclosed reason, the Driver decides to help her out.  During these scenes, we bear witness to beautiful pieces of cinematography.  Several scenes are acted out in one flowing shot.  Others make brilliant use of mirrors, such that the facial expressions of three characters, all facing different directions, are visible at one time.  The Driver and Irene become familiar with one another, but they don’t sleep together; she clearly loves her family and just needs a friend.

Eventually, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home, and we immediately see why he landed in prison.  He’s genuinely devoted to his family, but try as he might, he keeps getting involved with the wrong kinds of people, and already finds himself owing protection money to a few bad folks.  Instead of telling the Driver, who has taken a clear interest in his wife, to leave the family alone, Standard sees him as an opportunity to settle his debt.  In a gorgeous scene featuring the best use of an “Exit” sign I’ve ever seen in a film, Standard hires the Driver to help him with a simple heist.  The Driver agrees, only because the completion of the heist will get the bad people away from Irene and her son for good.

The heist ends up being the biggest disaster since the heist from Reservoir Dogs, and the film jumps from PG-13 to R in one second flat when a character’s head is blasted with a shotgun in slow motion.  We are introduced to the other major players, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a movie producer who wants to hire the Driver; and Nino (Ron Perlman), a Jewish gangster who owns a pizzeria and who is also responsible for Shannon’s bad leg.  In the action that follows, the Driver hunts down the offenders one by one in order to secure Irene’s safety.

Drive is a film most easily swallowed if taken at face value.  The problem with a MWNN story is that if you’re too good of a screenwriter, you run the risk of making the character too interesting.  If a character is interesting, the audience wants to know more about him, and the MWNN mustn’t reveal anything about himself.  Why is the Driver so silent and distant, yet immediately obsessed with the safety of Irene and her son?  How is he so adept at taking down trained mobsters, and why is he so stoic about cold-blooded murder?  Some of his behavior may hint at Asperger’s Syndrome, but none of this is ever explored, and we’re politely asked to ignore it once the violent parts begin.

Still, the film remains more about characters than anything else.  Carey Mulligan, always a magician on the screen, is given very little to do other than sit around and mope, but she owns the scenes in which she appears.  Oscar Isaac, whose character comes and goes within fifteen minutes, gives the most sympathetic performance, where the character could easily have been the cliche’d Bad Dad who doesn’t care about his family.  Standard, however, truly wants what’s best for Irene and the kid.  Bryan Cranston is a good fit for the classic ill-fated mentor, and the casting of Brooks as a villain is inspired, if odd to see (imagine Jeff Bridges stabbing crippled people in the throat, and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like).  Ron Perlman gives a full-caliber performance as the sparsely-seen Nino, and is quoted as saying (when asked by Refn why he would want to play this character after appearing in so many great films), “I always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster…because that’s what I am…”  Drive also features a brief appearance by the multi-talented Christina Hendricks, who plays the underused (and perhaps unnecessary) character of Blanche.

The film’s weaknesses include the abrupt jump to gory violence, which dilutes the film’s great mood.  In addition, the music is a bit invasive.  The lyrics tend to narrate how we’re supposed to read the film’s events, almost like a first-person narrator shelling out all-too-revealing thematic passages (though the use of the song “A Real Hero” imbues the film with a fairtytale-like quality).  Despite these issues, Drive deserves attention.  The performances are solid and impassioned across the board, and the film achieves a level of true grindhouse cinema, mainly because it’s not self-conscious and has a small budget.

This is a piece of art that demands polarized opinions.  I think more art should be that way.  Do you even remember the last thing you felt “neutral” about?  I certainly don’t.

Drive (2011); written by Hosseini Amini (based on a book by James Sallis); directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston.