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.

JUST THE PERFECT KINSHIP: Reviews of the Town and The Social Network


There came a time when many British films, especially those that concerned the working classes, were subtitled so that audience might be able to better understand what was being said. Upon seeing the Town, in which many of the characters are natives of a certain neighborhood in Boston, one has to wonder whether we’ll have to start doing the same thing in the states as there were times when the Boston brogue tended to obscure what was being said in this gritty, urban thriller. In talking with my friend Beriau, I stated I preferred The Town’s approach, authenticity, over the somewhat unskilled accent of say, a Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness; Beriau wasn’t so sure, especially because of that one scene where Jeremy Renner (terrific here as a sociopathic thug) was talking about someone he killed and the reasons for it. It seemed an important scene, but I had no idea what he said. The Town is a story about a group of bank robbers who have great tastes in masks and disguises. The movie is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Aaron Stockard also wrote another Ben Affleck movie, Gone, Baby, Gone, and the two of them seem to have an aptitude for working class grit. Affleck comes off a bit better than Stockard this time round. With The Town, Affleck demonstrates that he is probably a better director than actor, or at least a better director than romantic or heroic lead. The action scenes have a slam bang feel to them (though they often are the sort where no one can ever seem to shoot someone except when it’s convenient for the screenwriter); the neighborhoods have a certain down and dirty bleakness to them; and the romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall has a certain sweetness to it. The Town is never less than entertaining, especially whenever Renner is on screen, stealing the show as only a good sociopath can; he’s the main reason to see it. The rest of the movie is a bit dicey at times. The bank robberies here are too good, too clever, too artistically brilliant to be realistic. They’re enjoyable and fascinating, but one does come away from them thinking they’re the sort of thing one only sees in movies. They also suggest that Affleck’s character’s main problem is not so much his criminal background as a lack of career counseling; this guy shouldn’t be robbing banks, he should be running them. Though Renner is the top of the food acting chain, Affleck and Hall are also affective. But the others didn’t really thrill me all that much. Chris Cooper, as Affleck’s father, isn’t really given anything to do and he proceeds not to do it. Pete Postlethwaite also seems wasted in the role of the gang’s go to guy for money laundering. Jon Hamm is actually rather bland as the FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. This blandness is perfect for his role as the man in the grey flannel suit on Mad Men, but it’s uncertain how far this can take him in the movies. The plot itself also has some issues. Part of it is personal. The older I get, the less empathy I automatically have for crooks and thugs and the authors don’t really give me any strong reason for rooting for Affleck here. I also wasn’t convinced that Postlethwaite had enough power to get Affleck to go on that oldest of clichés of heist movies, the last job. And once Renner kills some policemen, I have no sympathy for Affleck at all; he may not have shot them himself, but he’s equally culpable. At the end, in a voice over, Affleck states that everyone has to pay for what he’s done in life. The only problem is that he hasn’t closely begun to pay. He got away with the money; the affection of the girl, with the possibility of them being together again; and he’s living in what looks like, even if it’s not to my taste, a rather nice house with a great view of a river (this almost feels like an ending come up with in committee or via focus groups). It’s too idyllic to come across as any sort of punishment. I mean, I should have it so lucky if I’m responsible for the death of a couple of cops.

A critic once described the dialog in the movie All About Eve as some of the best staircase wit in the movies. I couldn’t help but think of that remark in watching The Social Network in which the writer Aaron Sorkin gives his actors one witty line after another; in fact, wholesale paragraphs of witty lines, all delivered with the speed and dead on intensity of a SWAT member taking out a bad guy. But isn’t that one of the things movies can be for: to have people say what they should have said, not necessarily what they did say? If only we could all live in the wisecracking world of His Gal Friday. The Social Network seems like one of those movie marriages of writer and director made in heaven. While Sorkin parcels out his flashes of spoken lightning, director David Fincher plays every scene for what it’s worth. In another reference to All About Eve, he grabs you like the dogs nipping at your rear end and doesn’t let go. With this and Zodiac, Fincher seems to be showing a skill at somehow keeping a movie ship afloat even if it has a somewhat unwieldy structure (I’m not using unwieldy here in a negative term; but in The Social Network and Zodiac, so much information has to be covered and dramatized effectively even if the story doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional Hollywood structural guidelines as taught in film schools or as found in various how to books). For some reason Zodiac didn’t connect to the audience (I loved it); maybe because it’s structure was just a bit too unwieldy for general consumption. Here, Sorkin has used a somewhat familiar approach by providing the story with a linking narrative, the various depositions Mark Zuckerberg, the central character, had to participate in, allowing the rest of the story to be filled in with flashbacks. And this probably did help give the story a bit more focus. Zuckerberg is played with ferociousness by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg should probably be flattered. From his various appearances on TV and The Simpsons (where he was portrayed as always speaking through his Facebook account), ferociousness is not his strong point when he talks. In fact, he comes across as the almost stereotypical geek who almost seems to have some trace of Asperger’s syndrome. Eisenberg plays him as a lion who lives his life pacing a cage. And to a certain degree that does seem to be what is driving Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, someone who is trapped in a cage of isolation because he doesn’t have the right pedigree to be invited to the best parties or the right fraternities. He’s the person who hates people not because they look down on him, but because he is not one of them looking down on others. How shallow this psychology is is probably a matter of personal opinion, but it does work. Zuckerberg would do anything to humiliate those who refuse to recognize his worth and is quick to take slights where none are intended (the fact that they aren’t intended is even worse; it means they slighted him without even acknowledging his existence). He created Facebook not just to do something brilliant, but to prove that he’s a superior human being to the upper crust snobs, the Winklevoss twins, who can’t let him in their frat house any farther than the bike room and when they offer him a sandwich, they give him a store bought one ensconced in cellophane. Zuckerberg starts distancing himself from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield with a first rate American accent), pelting him with passive/aggressive insults because Eduardo is invited to join a fraternity. Instead, his alpha male hero becomes Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (almost as sociopathic as Jeremy Renner’s tour de force in The Town), the founder of Napster, who also stuck it to the man. But when Zuckerberg realizes that Parker is too sociopathic, and has a way with partying and women that Zuckerberg could never hope to achieve, he drops him, too. It’s possible that as good as everyone is here, Timberlake actually gives the best performance; or is it something about sociopath’s that we can’t take our eyes off of them. Oddly enough, both Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Ben Affleck’s bank robber have the same ending: isolated, but having basically gotten away with everything. The difference is that I wasn’t really asked to feel that sorry for Zuckerberg. Some, yes, but Sorkin’s attitude seemed to be Zuckerberg dug his own grave. If only those involved in The Town had felt the same way.