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Review Catch-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a somber American tale following the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) set within 1961’s New York City folk scene. The Coen brothers, obviously, are masters of cinema with an unmistakable creative voice and skill. Here again, as in “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the duo return to an American landscape of music synonymous with a certain time and place. This time around, the odyssey belongs to Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer in Greenwich Village who survives the cold winter months mostly due to the hospitality of friends and neighbors in the upper west side. We first find Llewyn at the Gaslight cafe giving an evocative performance of melancholy mood and airy atmosphere.

After a stirring rendition of an age old folk tale “Hang me, Oh Hang me”, the beleaguered Llewyn is told by the bartender that a friend is waiting for him outside. Que the snarky and sarcastic singer getting beatdown by a shadowy figure for reasons that are initially unknown. Llewyn awakens the next morning on the couch of some wealthy academic friends, the Gorfeins, and heads out after recouping momentarily- but not before accidentally letting their cat escape! Having locked the door on his way out, he grabs the Gorfeins’ cat and heads to the apartment of his friends’ Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan)- though their relationship to Llewyn is strenuous at best. Hoping to stay a night on their couch, with cat in tow, Llewyn is met with polite simmering rage by Jean who has two pieces of bad news for him. First, that the couch had already been offered to a soldier in town for a few musical gigs before heading back to the service, but more importantly, Jean’s pregnant and it could be Llewyn’s unborn child. Jean can’t discern whether the father is truly Llewyn, or Jim to which she is engaged. Llewyn’s allowed to stay, on the floor, after hashing it out with Jean and swearing to pay for her abortion- with money he doesn’t have. Cue another morning of mounting anxieties and you’ll begin to understand the crushing existence that Llewyn lives, right as he watches the Gorfeins’ Cat leap out Jean’s open window and scampering off into wild bluster of the city.

This propels the wandering Llewyn to chase down the cat and it seems as though each step brings him closer to failure or the ultimate sin for artists, giving in to financial pressure. We get a lot of background information about Llewyn through his interactions with those aware of his past and of him encountering those from his past, notably his family and those who knew that he was part of a musical folk duo- that is, until his partner Mike jumped off a bridge. Through Llewyn’s sister and father, there’s a sense of practicality over expression, and a lot of Llewyn’s stubbornness to continue struggling for his art stems from the anxiety and dread he experiences when visiting his father late in the film- which was the push he needed to follow through with a life he wanted versus a life of regret. It’s not necessarily explicitly said in this scene, but you can sense the nature of it. What I really found inspiring in this film is exactly that, Llewyn’s innate nature to get back up after being knocked down, no matter the severity of blows that life throws at him. I’m skipping a bit here to my personal consensus about the film overall, but that’s because the journey that this film, and Llewyn himself, are going on is a great one and I don’t intend to spoil the whole damn thing for any of you out there. There’s a lot of small aspects of the movie that have endeared me to it. The world that Llewyn resides in has a desaturated color palette of cold blues and greens that give it a texture akin to a furled and beaten paperback novel. This analog world of the early 1960’s is lit with soft and full lighting when focused on any of the musical performances throughout the film, while a crisp and harsher eye is applied to scenes shot outside, within small and cramped New York City apartments, the dark and grimy alleyways, or the humorously narrow hallways like the one Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody squeeze past each other at one point. Which brings me to the performances. As with every and all Coen Brothers films, the deadpan, sarcastic, heartening, and unique nature of the characters involved ties the film together with a bow only Ethan and Joel Coen could craft so neatly. Justin Timberlake’s Jim holds no resemblance to the world famous singer, if only through vocal talent- Carey Mulligan is poise perfect with a grumpy under-pinning that makes her “Jean” feel like a real person with dreams and purpose. There’s also, yes, a John Goodman cameo as an aging Jazz man critically destroyed by a Heroin addiction and a nasty case of spite and bitterness. Goodman’s paired with a similar yet opposite side of failure with musicians in Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a quiet poet who’s controlled by an older cynic in the industry, from failure breeds further failure. Llewyn stumbles across these two when deciding to hitch-hike to Chicago to see how the record he’d put out after Mike’s death was any good and to see if he could audition for the studio owner. It’s this audition that drives Llewyn back home to New York City, and ultimately back to the Gaslight Cafe.

While some may find this film a bit too Melancholy for their taste, I’d recommend watching (or maybe re-watching) and focusing on how Llewyn navigates his troubles and how nothing seems to stop him. Even though his failures do have an affect on him, he doesn’t let those failures define him, he picks himself back up and goes forward. There’s a wistful nature about the film that suggests that part of the joy of the struggle is the unknown element and pure expression of it all. There are deep undercurrents of the authenticity versus commercialism debate that everyone who’s ever wanted to, or tried to, live off of their art knows full well. Maybe that’s why I was so struck by the beauty of this film’s circular storytelling. At the end of the film Llewyn is back where he started, singing at the Gaslight Cafe and getting beaten up in the alley. Every artist, failed, successful, or otherwise- knows this cycle all too well and it’s a welcome nod to those who keep going for it. Oscar Issac came on the scene in a big way with this film and if you’ve only ever seen him in the recent Star Wars movies, then I suggest giving this one a watch.

Final Score: 2 Cats, 1 Roadtrip

*Check out this video essay on the film! Caution, there are spoilers for the film within the video:

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Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: The Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”

Written by both Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen, “Blood Simple” is a thriller that reflects much of their future catalog of films in a multitude of ways. Mainly that there might be a simple tumbling of events based around those universal and age old instigators; love, jealousy, and revenge. The film opens with narration condoning complainers and letting the audience know that something can always go wrong because in Texas, we’re told, you’re on your own. This brilliantly lays out the mentality that ultimately causes everything to go awry.

It’s a simple story at its core, but it’s what the Coens do with that structure and how they shoot the preceding events that make this film worth it’s while. Abby (Frances McDormand) decides to leave her jealous and brooding husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) in the night. Ray (John Getz) works for Marty at his bar and offers to drive Abby to Houston, but a mutual attraction only gets them to a motel before doubling back after a night of passionate indiscretion. While there Marty’s hired private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) snaps proof of the infidelity and wheels back to Marty to hand over the proof for an envelope of money.

A few double crosses later and we have scenes that play out where two characters believe each other has killed another all while we the audience know that neither version is true. The Coens play each scene for all it’s worth by ratcheting up the tension with their shot sequences, pacing, and soundtrack choices. The title of the film is derived from a 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel (Red Harvest) which the term “Blood Simple” is described as the addled, fearful mindset of people after a prolonged immersion in violent situations. Which is something that every major character goes through, and some viewers may also feel unsettled due to the atmosphere alone. I really enjoyed this movie, it was fun getting to the root of two of the most critically acclaimed directing duos to ever hit Hollywood and it’ll help give me context to their future releases, every good story needs an origin after all. I suggest giving it a shot!

Final Score: One love triangle and a knife in the hand

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Movie Pitch: Adaption of “Endurance” Ernest Shackleton’s fated Antarctic voyage

Recently I finished the book “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible voyage” and ever since I’ve been obsessed with what a film adaption of this tale would look like. Below I’ve assembled a cast and crew that would create a unique and vibrant adaption of this actual voyage. This is the story of Ernest Shackleton and his attempt to organize a crew, and a ship, to travel to the southern pole and become the first to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea as his previous journey south ended with him being beaten to the south pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. This attempt would also go awry, as fate would have it, the crew of the endurance would never make it to the Antarctic coast. At about a day’s journey from their destination the Endurance became trapped in floating pack ice in the Weddell sea.

For months the crew of the Endurance stayed on ship hoping for the ice-floe to give, but its grip only tightened further until they had to abandon ship before the ice crushed the Endurance. Thus the crew camped out on the floe, surviving blizzards, sea life, starvation, and boredom until it broke up and they could make a break for land. It was a grueling journey with flares of mutiny, dog sledding races, soccer matches, theatre shows and musical entertainment by way of banjo. That doesn’t even cover the second half of the journey, which consisted of Shackleton and several crew members sailing in a twenty foot lifeboat across 800 miles (roughly) of raging seas in some of the most dangerous waters on the planet. The true story is thrilling, harrowing, and full of the extent to which humanity can struggle and fight just to live another day.

I haven’t, however, casted for the entire crew of the endurance. The Endurance’s crew consisted of 28 members including Shackleton, but I have tried to cast for the majority of crew members that have some sort of standout personality or that have moments over the course of their journey that play into a compelling narrative better. I’m sure there are regulars in the film casting world that would be capable of such scale and lengthy film shoots. I honestly see this as being a very long film because of the nature of the story, as a lot of it is the crew lying in wait on the floe, and later waiting on Elephant island, but it is sparsed with more intense times throughout. What has to be considered here is the essential world building, and the immersion of the story, as it is in the world of 1914, during World War One. I’d suggest longer takes and shots, lingering on thought and expression at times. Look at “The Hateful Eight” (Ironically this is a film I initially did not enjoy but have come to find it to be more of a masterpiece in some regards) and how patience in camera work made for better and more intuitive character moments, it also helped to set the mood for the narrative.

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Iñárritu proved incredible skill as a director in both “Birdman” and “The Revenant” winning two Best Director oscars for both, two years in a row, with “Birdman” receiving Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture as well. Shackleton’s story does share similar themes that “The Revenant” also tackled, ‘Man versus Nature’ and the grit to go through extreme hardships, but the Fate of the Endurance and her crew is a bit different. There is no revenge here, just man tempting the fates of nature and getting a horrid hand of cards dealt their way, but striving nonetheless. It is about the neccesary implementation of optimism and hope, even in the darkest of times. Alejandro Iñárritu has done groundbreaking things with his cinematopgraphy choices in both “The Revenant” and “Birdman” and I believe he could do wonders with this material.

Writers: Steven Zaillian and the Coen brothers

Steven Zaillian was one of the main screenwriters on “Gangs of New York”, which is in my opinion one of the very best films set within a historical context. That film is grounded and has a good sense about the world that it has to efficiently emulate and become. Combined with the Coen brothers who have an extensive record of creating films within very specific time settings (from “The Big Lebowski” to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and  “Inside Llewyn Davis” among others), not to mention their outright skill in the writing department AND the fact that they’ve been known to join in on the writing efforts of other films at times (“Bridge of Spies”). This is a team that has the credentials and the skill to pull this film off.

Cast:

Ernest Shackleton (Expedition Leader): Liam Neeson

With Shackleton being of Irish descent I believe Liam Neeson is uniquely qualified to pull off the stoic optimism of this legendary explorer excellently. While Neeson has recently evolved into an action star in the last decade he has the gravitas and grit when needed, just look at “The Grey” (For the ‘Man versus Nature’ argument) and Scorsese’s upcoming film “Silence”, a story of jesuits sent to 17th century Japan to retrieve a fellow jesuit wherein Neeson portrays the mentor of the jesuits. Shackleton was a born leader and it was under his authority and compassion that led them all to survive. Shackelton’s mantra of unity and show of humanity was infectious among the crew, often leading them all to rise to his example and treat each other with tremendous compassion. He broke the barriers between the classism that was more present in society at the time. He ordered everyone to perform all tasks, he even washed the floors himself and served the men hot milk (One of the few morsales of food and liquid available at the time) when trapped on the floes. To Shackleton, survival and maintaining the morality of the crew was far more important than any scrap of glory once he knew they would never make it to the Antarctic coast, he simply changed gears and made new goals, mostly that of the crew’s survival and return home. Liam Neeson could portray that confidence, optimism, and sense of checked urgency without folding under the immense pressure that Shackleton was constantly facing. Plus-an argument that could be made for each of these actors included below- who wouldn’t want to work with the director that just won two best director oscars and won one best picture, but was nominated for it twice?!

Thomas Orde-Lees (Storekeeper): Martin Freeman

Orde-Lees was a particularly sassy fellow as far as the rest of the crew was concerned. Labeled a prima donna by some of the crew, he held one of the most perceptive journals out of everyone as he so often complained of others’ nuisances, in his eyes. After Freeman’s performance in “The World’s End”, among many other films and shows,  I am convinced that Martin Freeman could pull off the slightly adverse crew member with his somewhat grumpy demeanor and general negativity towards their odds of survival.

Frank Worsley (Captain/on South Georgia trip): Michael McElhatton

As Captain of the Endurance Worsley needs a character actor with a presence, and Michael McElhatton has presence in spades. You might know him as Roose Bolton, Ramsey’s father, from Game of Thrones. This role would be far less antagonistic than that of the Bolton clan but his projected power in leadership that he portrays on Game of Thrones would most likely transfer to film well. He was also chosen to go with Shackleton on his treacherous journey to South Georgia Island from Elephant Island as Worsley had become adept at navigating in the ever worsening conditions ever since their departure from “Patience Camp” on the pack ice.

Frank Wild (Second-in-command): Eddie Marsan

Eddie Marsan may have portrayed a pushover in the film “The World’s End” but I believe he not only has the smaller framed look of Wild, but the acting ability as well. Wild was an important player in this journey as he often was confided in by Shackleton, and he took on many roles once everything had turned from exploration to that of survival. Marsan has had an incredible amount of side character roles in television and film and is well rounded enough to be able to pull this off efficiently.

Huberht Hudson (Navigator): Tim Roth

Hudson was an indespensible asset on the Endurance as he helped them to find their position while lost at sea on their floating savior/menace of ice. Tim Roth is equally indespensible in every film or show I’ve seen him in and I believe he’d only add gravitas to the ordeal.

Thomas Crean (2nd officer/on South Georgia trip): Sean Bean

While not as commanding a role as he’s had before, this role would be a bit different for Bean. A tough everyman for the English in 1914 Crean proudly became the ‘Father’ of a set of puppies on the trip proving to have a heart of gold under that rugged exterior. Crean is also one of the few characters that travels with Shackleton through the 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island. You need strong willed character actors to portray the enduring battle for survival, and Sean Bean can emote strength, loyalty, and respect effectively. Crean was a man that followed orders, but didn’t quit when it got tough, for he was tougher.

George Marston (Artist): Daniel Radcliffe

As with “Swiss Army Man” and “Horns” Daniel Radliffe seems to be choosing odd yet fun roles since his departure from the wizarding world of magic and nothing would set him apart from that realm of storytelling more than a hard dose of realism set against the backdrop of a dying breed of conquest and adventure at the beginning of World War One. Marston may not have been the biggest standout character among the journey, but he has a unique perspective from the other crew as the journey’s official Artist, he could play with the material within common sense for the character and make smaller moments shine whereas others may not be able to do as much with the role.

Frank Hurley (Photographer): Simon Pegg

Hurley had an interesting perspective within this journey as the photographer of the expedition, he took (and saved) all the pictures and film we currently have today. In fact the picture at the top of the article was taken by Hurley and has Frank Worsley and Lionel Greenstreet in the picture with the Endurance in the harbour of South Georgia Island below, the last stop before getting caught in the pack ice. As such a character, one that frames and views people and spaces, Hurley has qualities that I think Simon Pegg would excel at portraying. Pegg is exceptionally good at imbuing heart and he has a genuine authenticity that would play well into such a character.

Harry McNeish (Carpenter/on South Georgia trip): Walton Goggins

McNeish would be an especially fun role to have Walton Goggins in. As the only member of the party to really step forward to begin a mutiny, before having Shackleton firmly stand his ground as the authority figure, McNeish has a special amount of conflict within his character. He is also one of the crew chosen to go with Shackleton on the trip to South Georgia as his loyalty and ability to influence others came into question. Goggins is rightfully getting more recognition in the film world due to his scene stealing role in “The Hateful Eight”, and I feel he could do this role justice.

Charles Green (Cook): Charlie Day

In my opinion Charlie Day should be in more and bigger roles whenever possible. His antics on the show “Its always Sunny in Philadelphia” are ridiculous and entertaining, but out of the other roles he’s popped up in, I believe I see talents greater than that of Charlie Kelly, ‘King of the Rats’ (Although I do love that character). Green was noted as having a squeaky voice and being conscientious- yet scatterbrained. Does this not sound like the character type Charlie Day has become known for? As the chef that continually serves the crew in the worst of conditions Charlie could have ample opportunity to flex the role and show off his ability to weather any storm and survive, if he can bring anything from the Charlie Kelly character- it would be his skill in survival.

John Vincent (Seaman/on South Georgia trip): Adam Baldwin

You may remember this Baldwin from a little sci-fi show from the early 2000’s called “Firefly”. As Jayne on that show Baldwin expressed a lot of what we’d need for Vincent, essentially a strong strongman (Vincent had been an amateur boxer and wrestler before taking on work on the open seas) that attempts bullying behavior among the crew and is thus also picked by Shackleton to go on the journey to South Georgia, he’s loyal, just slightly antagonistic. Adam Baldwin could excel in this role.

Timothy McCarthy (Seaman/on South Georgia trip): Sharlto Copley

This may be a smaller role on the journey but as one of the capable seaman on the trip Copley could have great fun in being an eternal optimist in the worst of it. He was also chosen to go on the journey to South Georgia and maintained a sunny attitude once proclaiming “Another fine day” to McNeish when switching shifts at the till, to which I believe McNeish later recorded in his journal as “Insufferably optimistic”, but don’t quote me on that.

Lionel Greenstreet (First Officer): Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman is an actor with an incredible set of range, just watch “Kate and Leopold”, “The Wolverine”, and “Les Misérables” to get an idea. As an outspoken officer aboard the ship Greenstreet held his level of authority and was well liked. Later in the expedition he ran one of the dog teams and ended up killing an 800 lb Weddell seal with the help of Dr. Macklin. Jackman would be yet another indespensible asset to the film.

Leonard Hussey (Meteorologist): John C. Reilly

John C. reilly has done serious roles before (“Gangs of New York” for example), and he would fit in well here. Hussey had little qualifications going into the trip but Shackleton eyed his potential crewmates with more than just record and experience although those were ample qualifiers as well. He relied on gut and intuition. It paid off with Hussey as he was rather proficient at his work.

Dr. Alexander Macklin (Surgeon): Christoph Waltz

Macklin was a worldy man having been born in India and traveled globally before his family returned to England where he began his certification to become a doctor. When he was interviewed by Shackleton for acceptance on the expedition he asked Macklin what was wrong with his eyes, as Macklin wore glasses, he humorously replied “Many a wise face would look foolish without them” That clinched the decision for Shackleton and he was aboard the Endurance. After they became trapped Macklin was put in charge of a team of dogs, his quickly became the best team of all the men, running sledges through the ice from the ship before it was crushed entirely. They also held races in the ice to abate boredom and apathy. Once getting to Elephant island Macklin and the other surgeon remained on the island to attend to Rickenson (one of the seamen) as he had a heart attack upon reaching the island, and Blackboro as he’d gotten gangrene on one of his feet and eventually had it removed. Christoph Waltz has the charm and wit to pull this character off well enough, plus giving him a worldly background would be easy for such a wordly actor.

Perce Blackboro (Stowaway): Paul Dano

Paul Dano does sadness and uncertainty incredibly well, see “Swiss Army Man” for a perfect example of this. As a stowaway who is caught and given work only to have an awful time after that, Dano would excel in this young character’s fear of being stranded on the ice. Even worse is the fact that he loses a foot due to gangrene after they leave the floe in the boats, being awash in freezing cold saltwater consistently for seven days straight without being able to move and almost no sleep and even less food will do that. Dano is amazing at emoting during times of struggle and strife, and this role is full of that.

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Review: Bridge of Spies, Spielberg almost does it again

‘Bridge of Spies’ is a movie that doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be. As many have undoubtedly already stated this movie is expertly crafted, no doubt about it, but when the name Spielberg is at the forefront, people come to the cinema with weighty expectations. The film has this disjointed feeling from start to finish, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a well made movie, just that there clear stylistic choices that are somewhat at odds with each other. Perhaps the silver screen pairing of the Coen Brothers on the screenplay and Spielberg’s direction tendencies just weren’t quite the match made in movie heaven that some thought it would end up being.

The film centers around the true life events of James Donovan, an American insurance lawyer in 1957 that ends up being selected to defend a recently captured Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel, acted quite well by Mark Rylance. As this is happening an American pilot is captured across the Soviet border while on a reconnaissance mission to gain precious info on the Russians. This time it is the CIA that comes to Donovan to get him to negotiate their spy for ours. Thus begins the heart of the movie. I will say there are plenty of great choices in the film. Obviously Hanks does a stellar job, but curiously in a handful of scenes it almost seems as if even Hanks is almost going through the motions of the film. His scenes with Russian spy Abel are always on point though. There is visually clever editing throughout, and the production team that designed the sets used deserve applause because never once do you feel as if the characters are not in the year 1957.

Lets get to the meat of it though. It feels as though Spielberg wasn’t sure if he wanted to create something more in line with his more serious films like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or his popcorn flicks like ‘Jaws’, ‘Jurassic Park’, or even ‘Catch me if you can’. The film is chock full of idealistic speeches given by Tom Hanks’ character James Donovan. It’s also sprinkled throughout with moments of dynamic tension concerning foot chases, aerial action, and terse negotiating. This wouldn’t be so bad if these same things weren’t also happening in other areas of the film as a whole. This is firstly evident in the writing. Now, this film is very well written, that’s not the issue here. The Issue is that the Coen brothers’ style, which can be felt whenever a character opens their mouth, seems to be running at a different pace than the action, acting, or plot. For example, its often repeated for the main character to ‘be careful’ as danger is afoot, in fact danger is frequently mentioned, but you never quite feel as if anyone you care about in the movie is in any palpable danger at all. It never fully feels as though the two ends of the spectrum are in tandem with each other. They’re both good and well in execution, they just feel out of sync with each other.

There is however one obviously glaring omission in this Spielberg flick. No John Williams. Which is a bit of a let down because the composer and director have come to be recognized with one another after all this time. This is only the second film that Spielberg has not collaborated with Williams on for the score. And you can tell. It almost seems as if Spielberg had a conversation with composer Thomas Newman asking him to “Just try and do what John Williams would do” because the score consistently tries to reach the heights of the legendary composer while only getting to some knockoff version that sounds like Danny Elfman trying to do John Williams instead.

Let it be known however that none of this means that the film is not good or entertaining, it is. We as moviegoers have simply come to expect a more complete package from Steven Spielberg at this point. The movie has heart, a whole lot of it, and at the end you’ll probably leave with slightly warm feelings about it, but I doubt the film ‘WOW’ed anyone at all. When you begin to be associated with wowing people, they will come to expect it. Maybe next time Spielberg. We still love you.

Final Score: 8/10