film

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:

film

Review: Kong Skull Island, or “Hold onto your butts… again!”

As the second entry in Legendary’s newly established Monsterverse, “Kong: Skull Island” revives one of cinema’s oldest icons in a colossal way. The film begins with two pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on the beaches of Skull Island near the end of World War Two. They fight, chase, and scrap their way into the jungle and are quickly met by the giant ape himself. Fast Forward to¬†1973, just as the Vietnam war is coming to a close, and we’re met with an introduction to the Monarch corporation as it tries to secure funding for one last venture into the mists of the unknown, a journey to the fabled Skull Island. “A place where God never finished creation” is how John Goodman’s Bill Randa explains it in his pitch, however it’s his associate Houston Brooks, played by Corey Hawkins, that sells the idea to the gatekeeper by suggesting that the Russians and Chinese will have the same data they do soon enough, and if there is something to benefit from, shouldn’t America be the first ones there?

“Kong: Skull Island” quickly introduces us to the remaining heavy hitters in the cast’s lineup. There’s former British SAS tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) who’s recruited after showcasing his barroom brawling skills, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver as the anti-war Vietnam photographer, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard- a discouraged Vietnam Army officer that leads the military helicopter escort to the island. Once assembled they fly into the storm forever swirling around the eponymous island. Once there they quickly begin dropping bombs to survey the land and retrieve the seismic data. This immediately triggers the first large scale set piece wherein Kong smashes the entire fleet of helicopters like the annoying gnats they are to him.

So let’s talk about what the film does right. From my perspective, this film adequately does what a giant monster movie should do. It focuses on the monsters. It keeps the pace breezy and yet tense. The film gets its tone right. Most importantly though, Kong is a constant force throughout the film. Kong’s motivation was also clearer than that of say, Godzilla in Gareth Edwards 2014 iteration. Kong is the protector of the island, he respects nature and those who care for it, and he chooses peace over violence unless provoked. In Godzilla’s case, it seemed to simply be his need to challenge and reign supreme over the M.U.T.O.s? Or to align some monster’s code of balance?

Anyhow, back to Kong. I loved Sam Jackson’s revenge storyline with Kong, he went full Ahab and Kong was his white whale. Though admittedly I never tire of Jackson’s Shtick, it just works for me. John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, was also incredibly noteworthy. He gets the most complete storyline, and while he provides some comic relief, he never wanders into any zany or out-of-place performances. His character retains the heart of the flick, and it shows in palpable ways throughout the runtime. He’s also the connection to the natives of the island, which were represented not as savage tribesmen, but as a small peaceful community trying to survive in this hellish environment.

Speaking of the cast, I know the film has been steamrolled at times for “wasting” such a talented cast. However I don’t think they were wasted in the least to be honest. It’s a giant monster movie with “B-genre” aspects throughout it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect any Oscar nominations to come from a King Kong movie, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the most fleshed out and layered monster movie-Godzilla certainly wasn’t with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character, not to mention that film actually wasted Bryan Cranston. To that end, story and background information can be told in ways other than dialogue. The sets, locations, subtle acting, and even over-the-top acting all combine to tell a story. Sometimes it feels as though people simply watch films to point out as many problems and issues with a performance or story as possible, and that’s a shame. When did we all become so consistently cynical? Honestly, if you don’t love something, that’s okay-not everyone has to enjoy everything.

In the end I had a ton of fun with “Kong: Skull Island”. I loved the shameless “Apocalypse Now”¬†influences. I thoroughly enjoyed the chaos, the variety of monsters, the fight sequences, and of course the king himself, Kong.

Final Score: Two Kong-sized thumbs up