INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS


I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer of sorts.  I love folk music.  I mean, I luuuuuuuuuuuuve it.  I still have CD’s of The Kingston Trio and I had a two album set of Phil Ochs until I disposed of my stereo.  On Pandera I have a Judy Collins radio station on call.  I grew up listening to those melancholy songs of deep despair and whenever I listen to them now, I just feel a huge pang and ache of beautiful nostalgia.  I can still hear the pain in all of it.  Even John Denver, whose songs at the time were sometimes made fun of for being too cheery and optimistic, today sound as dark and depressing as the rest of them.
So I guess that makes me sort of a dork when it comes down to it.  It’s my moment of geek, I guess you’d say.  But it’s possibly my favorite genre of music even after all these year.  So I might be a tad prejudiced in favor of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, from the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen and one of the finer films of the year.
Llewyn Davis, the title and central character, is a singer of that particular brand of music.  But, in many ways, he’s also a victim of very bad timing.  First, he’s a folk singer in New York in 1961, but he’s a solo act.  The folk singing field is burgeoning, but only for groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, Mary, performers with polished acts that are outwardly, rather than inwardly, focused.
Davis had a partner at one time and they recorded an album.  But the partner killed himself and now Davis is singing stag, delivering haunting and heartfelt songs of despair that are more inwardly focused.  He’s very good.  There should be no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed.  But his kind of folk singing won’t break through for a year or two with the arrival of Bob Dylan, the success of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rise of the singer songwriter.   So while the album with his partner did well, his solo effort has failed miserably.
And when he makes his way to Chicago to see an influential manager (played by F. Murray Abraham who gives a remarkable performance in a very small role; his acting mainly consists of just sitting there with what seems to be blank looks on his face, while at the same time expressing more depth and emotion than more theatrical performers in larger roles), Davis is turned down because he is not commercial enough.
He’s also just a few years too soon for the movements that made folk so popular: the rise of the hippies; the Viet Nam war; and the Civil Rights moment.  The songs and performances of Davis’s time were strongly apolitical after Pete Seeger was accused of being a Communist which led to the break up of the group The Weavers.
Davis is also a victim of bad circumstances.  He has a crooked manager.  He is accused by the wife of his best friend of being the father of her baby, even though he wore condoms and as far as she knows her husband could be the father, but still he feels forced to do anything to get money for an abortion (including making a bad business decision).  He is haunted by the death of his partner, traumatized to the point where he can’t bring himself to take on another one.   He is doing so badly, in fact, he has no winter coat and has to beg people for couches to sleep on at night.  And he has this cat that…, well, you’ll have to see the movie for that.
This is not to say that Davis, the human being, is perfect.  He’s incredibly self-absorbed and has difficulty feeling anyone else’s pain (which is both ironic and appropriate for the sort of internal kind of folk he sings).  He looks down on everyone (I always felt the Cohen’s were a bit too misanthropic and ridiculed people in an often unkind way, but either I’ve gotten so used to their style, or they’ve taken the edge off, or it could be that Davis is so imperious that I just can’t look down on the other characters the way he does).  And he always seems puzzled as to why he is not the center of the universe.   Yet for me, I still felt he was more sinned against than sinning.
I’m not sure what has happened to casting directors this year.  I’m not saying they’ve been falling down on the job before now.  But films this year have shown some of the most imaginative and witty casting in some time.  I first noticed this with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (of course, his movies have always been brilliantly cast, no matter how good or bad they were), but it has continued on through such films as Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and now Inside Llewyn Davis.
The title role is inhabited by Oscar Isaac in what is termed a breakout performance.  Relatively new to movies (his myriad of parts have been relatively small until now), he gives a very empathetic performance of a man who keeps struggling even when he’s no longer sure what he’s struggling for.  John Goodman finally has a role that’s not a John Goodman part and he makes the most of a haughtier than Davis, drug addicted poet that imparts a very acute observation about the death of Davis’s partner (with a driver played by Garrett Hudland who is basically playing the same part he played in On the Road, and as weakly).
Justin Timberlake seems to be having fun satirizing himself a bit as Davis’ overly upbeat best friend whose voice is a bit reedier than the hero’s.  Carey Mulligan, as the wife, gives more depth to a somewhat misogynistic role of a woman who thinks she’s been scorned, when she hasn’t (she breaks through the anger of the character and makes her part more real and sympathetic that it comes across at first).  And Adam Driver has a very droll role as the third part of a trio singing a novelty song, providing some very funny background recitative (though perhaps a song that is a bit too harmonic to be as novelty as it is suppose to be).
And it’s all played out against a strong feel of period and place in the design of costumes, sets, dialog and overcast cinematography of never ending snow.
In the end, Inside Llewyn Davis may be little more than a character study and like other movies of the same vein made by the Cohen brothers (like A Serious Man), I’m not sure what it all adds up to.  But also like A Serious Man, I’m not sure I care.  I was just too riveted by Davis and his story to try to make it add up to anything.  And whenever the characters broke into song, I was flung back into those early days of rapture.   The film is as haunting and moving as the lieder that punctuate the action.  What the Cohen brothers may not have achieved intellectually, they have more than made up for instinctually and emotionally.

THE GREAT GATSBY



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The new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is filmed by director Baz Luhrmann as if everyone and everything in it had a fever, which in many ways is probably a very acute approach to this story that takes place during a particular frenzied time in U.S. history.   Everything is hyped, over the top, as if it’s on Benzedrine.   As a result, this is probably Luhrmann’s best film to date.  This is not to say it’s a good film (it doesn’t quite go there), but it’s certainly far superior to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! 
People always talk of the difficulty of adapting Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which wasn’t so classic when it came out; it flopped miserably when it was first published).  For me, the problem has always revolved around the character of Gatsby himself, who is, in many ways, the least interesting person in the book.   He’s not the central character; Nick Carroway, the somewhat callow observer, has that honor and it’s Nick who the story is about.  And most of what makes Gatsby interesting takes place in the past long before the story starts; and when this past is related, it’s often open to credulity.   So how do you dramatize a story about someone who is a secondary character and whose past is primarily myth?
Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, in many ways take the same tact that the writers and director did in the 1949 version starring Alan Ladd.  They downplay all the other characters and fight fiercely to bring Gatsby center stage.   The Ladd version did it by turning the story of Gatsby into a film noir, fully dramatizing in flashback his rise to gangster glory.  Luhrmann and Pearce do it by emphasizing the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, giving it a tragic, star crossed lovers feel.
This approach has its downside.  It often reduces the other characters to their bare necessities.  Jordan Baker now has so little to do, one wonders why she is even in the picture.  And the Wilsons, George and Myrtle, are now no more than mere melodramatic contrivances (this actually works the best because these two characters now feel more like toys that the well to do play with rather than real characters in their own right).  
But from a dramatic standpoint, Luhrmann’s approach was probably a sound stratagem because the romance is the part of the movie that works the best.   There is something touching, often beautiful, about these two doomed lovers.  Luhrmann is able to restrain himself a bit here and let the actors and the screenplay pull their weight such that when Gatsby is a terrified little boy waiting for Daisy to arrive for tea or when he is throwing his shirts down to Daisy, the moments become rather transcendental.   
Of course, Luhrmann and Pearce have to cheat a bit to make it work.  They up the tragedy by purifying the love story.  In the novel, one of the reasons Gatsby is attracted to Daisy is due to her background (the movie leaves out Gatsby’s line that Daisy’s voice sounds like “money”) and the writers downplay that one of the reasons Daisy first rejects Gatsby is because he has no wealth and then accepts him more to get back at her husband for cheating on her than out of true love.  And they also play a bit fast and lose on the death of Myrtle; in the book, there’s some indication it wasn’t totally an accident, that Daisy swerved the car purposely, while in the movie the suggestion is that it was completely unintentional and unavoidable.  No, Luhrmann instead decides to swoon in delirium over the couples feelings for each other.   And some good swooning it is.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby and it is his performance that holds the movie together.  When he appears, DiCaprio shows both Gatsby’s strength and vulnerability at the same time just by standing there.   His line readings are spot on; even the “old sport”, a phrase almost impossible to say with a straight face (maybe it works because DiCaprio pronounces the words as if they are as much of a sham as the house he lives in and the parties he throws).   This Gatsby is both so fierce and adorable in what he wants, he makes us want it to.  
And he gets able support from Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Joel Edgerton as her racist, to the manor born husband Tom.  They have great chemistry with DiCaprio and match him line reading for line reading.  It all results in a scene that feels like it’s torn from a boulevard drama: all the characters are trapped in a hotel room together when everything comes out.  Everyone plays it like they were doing O’Neill and they pretty much get away with it.   Sad to say, though, Tobey Maguire, as Carraway, is the weak point here.  He is given the thankless task of voice over narrating.  But the narration is clunky and Maguire is listless and flat, a deadly combination.
But in the end, though there is actually much to like here, and even much to admire, it never quite comes together in a satisfying whole.   It works best when Luhrmann matches his editing and directing style to the brilliantly chosen, but often anachronistic music.  However, the film is more of an interpretation of The Great Gatsby rather than a story that works in its own right.   This even leads to Luhrmann and Pearce working very hard to parallel the story to today: Nick works in bonds at a time just before the country will be hit by recession; Tom is a representative of the 1% while the Wilsons are the 99; and the authors really emphasize the increasing presence of blacks in society. 
But Luhrmann is also such a visual stylist and such an over director, that all subtlety is lost.  Everything is over telegraphed to such a degree that the weak parts of the book (the obvious symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the melodramatic contrivances of who is driving what car when Myrtle is killed) only feel weaker, while the strengths of the book are done so big they often get in the way of allowing one to become emotionally involved in the story as one would like.   Rather than feel the emotions, you are much more interested in critiquing Luhrmann’s approach to the material (though I have to say, I loved the Rhapsody in Blue intro of Gatsby at his party).
Tell me what you think.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KIDS TODAY: Reviews of An Education and La Mission


An Education, the film based on the memoir by Lynn Barber about her growing up and being deflowered in London in the 1960’s, is like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but without Brodie (or at least the romantic life force of that character, here replaced with the more down to earth Miss Stubbs—even her name says it all). Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, who, like the girls in …Brodie is being highly educated, though it’s a bit unclear why since all they are expected to do is get married. Jenny wants to experience life; her conservative father (played with incredible drollness by Alfred Molina) doesn’t understand what there is about life that is worth experiencing. Jenny meets David (played by Peter Sarsgaard with a remarkable British accent), a handsome young man who introduces her to culture and dog racing and takes her to Paris, whereupon he takes her virginity. She then finds out he’s married and with her tail between her legs, she crawls back to the girl’s school she dropped out of and begs to be let back in (though it’s a little unclear how she did it). There is something a little off here. Theoretically, she’s supposed to have learned her lesson, but it’s unclear what that lesson is: not experience life because it might break your heart? Jenny is right in that what she learned through David is every bit as educational as what she was being taught in school (actually, more so). It’s not her fault he was married; if he wasn’t and she had gone off with him and lived happily ever after, traveling the world, going to concerts and museums, collecting art, would the lesson be to drop out of school and experience life? But no matter. This is still a wonderful film with an incredibly witty and sharp script by Nick (About a Boy) Hornby. Mulligan is pitch perfect as Jenny, a joy to behold. The whole movie, in fact, is a joy to behold.

La Mission is a very sincere, very earnest film, one of those movies described as having its heart in the right place. Benjamin Bratt plays Che Rivera, a very macho Hispanic with very conservative macho values living in a very macho section of San Francisco. He’s very macho, an ex-convict, now covered with tattoos and working on cars he takes low riding once a week. Che’s life starts to fall apart when he finds out Jesse, his straight A son, is gay. They have fisticuffs and Che throws him out of the house. Slowly, the two find their way back to each other, but not until Jesse is shot by some gang bangers, Che threatens Jesse’s lover and Jesse leaves for Los Angeles to go to college. There’s nothing wrong with the movie. As I said, it’s very sincere, as sincere as Che is macho. And though the story takes place within a subset of America, its theme is universal. Of course, that’s also one of the problems. It’s so universal, it’s basically no different than the hundreds of other films that have come before it with the same topic and structured according to the same formula. The background may be different, but everything else is incredibly familiar. The structure is also a bit lopsided. So much of the story is devoted to Che, that Jesse’s story gets lost here and there and doesn’t seem to exist on its own but only to reveal Che’s character. There’s one scene that has potential, but doesn’t go there. When Che comes looking for Jesse who left the hospital after Che threatened Jesse’s lover (a very white and non-Hisptanic lover), Jesse goes to stay with his lover in the very upper middle class house of the lover’s very white parents. Che arrives and sees two Hispanic workers taking care of the garden. Visually this has tons to say, none of which the script (by the director Peter Bratt) explores. There is actually something a little uncomfortable in the author saying that upper middle class whites would have no problem with their son’s gay lover coming from a working class Hispanic background, but Bratt’s character can’t even accept his son being gay. In the end, the strongest aspect of the movie is the director’s success at creating the milieu of the characters. But the movie Quinceanera is more successful covering some of the some themes and ideas.