Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

insidel2More often than not Llewyn Davis turns out to be a worthy character and I mean that in the sense that he is readily watchable. This probably isn’t the real folk scene of the 1960s, but it is the time and place seen through the Coen Brothers’ somber lens. Inspired by musician Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is his own unique entity entirely. The film itself has a dreary look of washed out tones mimicking the days that most of us now know from black and white imagery. There are folk tunes wall to wall, befitting such a melancholy film, adding layers of melody and ambiance to this austere world of isolation.

In fact, we first meet Llewyn in a low lit bar singing the ode “Hang me, Oh hang me.” He’s not some budding talent or has-been. He had a partner once, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. They had a record that came and went out almost as fast. The unsold copies sit in a warehouse somewhere rotting away with the rats. That’s really Llewyn’s life. He’s couch hopping his way through Greenwich Village, a pitiful wanderer with the cat he was entrusted with in one hand and his guitar in the other. In the frigid winter air, he doesn’t even have a real overcoat. He can barely afford it.

insidel4The film goes so many places only to return to where it was. So much goes on without anything happening and so on. Llewyn has it out with Jean, a transformed and caustic Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. How it could ever be Llewyn’s doesn’t make much sense, since she seems to despise his guts. Why would she sleep with him?

Llewyn alienates his sister with his misanthropic outlook and foul mouth. He loses and tries to recover the cat of his folk-loving friends the Gorffeins. How they ever became friends we’ll never know. A spur of the moment trip to Chicago comes up and with it, there’s the token John Goodman performance that feels like an absurd aside to the entire plot. Then again, the film’s only plot is the wanderings of Davis, so if meeting passengers while hitchhiker marks his journey it seems pertinent.  A trip to the Gate of Horn for an impromptu audition turns out to be unfruitful and it is the film’s most difficult scene. Davis lays all his heart and soul out there in a poignant performance and all he gets from the producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is that he should join a trio. He’s not solo material.

insidel5Llewyn returns to Greenwich dejected and things continue going poorly for him. So we end up leaving him about where we started. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez would come in time, but it’s the musicians like Davis that are a sadder tale. Those who faded away over the years. Who lay beat up in an alley for heckling a performance in a hole-in-the-wall bar. It’s the circle of life of a folk singer and you wonder if he would ever have it any other way. Undoubtedly this folk oasis was a more hopping, more welcoming place than the Coen’s painted it, but it does suggest something powerful.

Why would somebody subject themselves to this type of lifestyle? Unless they’re insane and like to suffer, it must be that they really believe in the music. They believe in bearing their heart and soul because the music makes them feel alive. Obviously, there is more to life than music, some would argue that point, but it is a brilliant starting point. We can respect someone who sticks by their convictions and their passions. Even if it means chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village looking for a cat. You would never see me doing that. Maybe if it were a dog. Maybe.

4/5 Stars

Drive (2011)

drive1You always think of the man in the getaway car as the wimp. Why else is he supposed to keep the engine running instead of helping with the job? Well, not anymore. Ryan Gosling completely demolishes that myth with Drive. It’s a neo-noir of sorts, but don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t your conventional Hollywood action flick. Albert Brook’s corrupt thug sans eyebrows says he used to back sexy European action films and that’s ironically enough what Drive is. There’s a new age electronic score to match the stylized action. Silky smooth slo-mo mixed with golden illumination of the characters and the L.A. nightscape.

Although he’s really a stunt driver and spends his spare time working as a mechanic for the shop owner (Bryan Cranston), the Kid (Gosling) works jobs on the side as a getaway car driver, and he’s the best of the best. He proves it in the opening minutes, perfectly timing his escape with the conclusion of a Clippers game. It makes disappearing into the night that much easier.

He keeps things in check, keeps his cards close to his body, and at times reminds me of Alain Delon in Le Samourai. He’s not quite so icy cool, almost serene, and yet that can disappear in a flash. So still, so slight of word and movement, and yet behind the wheel, he has so much purpose. He doesn’t use a gun. His methods are more brutal, and he only uses them when absolutely necessary. Such a role gives me a new found respect for Ryan Gosling. He really does seem to have the true ability to take on some interesting roles of varying degrees and intensities.

drive2All the characters around him are not necessarily fully developed entities on their own, but they function as more of an essence, developing this stylized world. Carey Mulligan is the aloof woman next door with the far-off gaze and quiet demeanor. There is an aura around her much like the Driver, maybe because they don’t talk much. There’s a mystery to them. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks have relatively short screen time, but they play pivotal roles in the film and they lend credence to the story because even if they’re no good, we have at least a little empathy towards them. And then Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are real crud of the earth who we don’t mind seeing suffer. It may not be a nice thing to say, but it’s undoubtedly the truth. The Driver seems outside of this fray at first, but he ends up getting involved in it whether it’s because of Irene or her husband’s botched robbery attempt. It becomes his business and it proves cataclysmic.

Aside from Le Samourai, there’s a bit of Bullitt here thanks to the ultra sleek car chases, and maybe even some Point Blank, another film that functions as a dreamy, unconventional thriller. We never see the inside of whatever jobs are being pulled, but it actually builds the tension as we sit on the outside waiting with the driver. He’s all business as the audience sits sweating it.

drive3What this film has and what I am not necessarily a proponent of, is the brutality and stylized gore. It fits the overall tone of Drive, but it does rub against me rather abrasively in a way that seems to make a spectacle of violence. That’s something that I don’t want. But then what is that saying about me? Do I find violence more palatable when it looks like an ugly and vile act? Yes, certainly, but I think I like it best when it is implied because that in itself seems perhaps even more stylized, and far less offensive.

But nevertheless, this story that parallels the fable of the scorpion and the frog is an engaging, albeit jarring ride.  You can help someone, you can want no part of them, but they will come right back and sting you because it’s in their nature. This is a story of relationships, of destruction, and a man who kicks it into high gear.

4/5 Stars

Never Let Me Go (2010)

neverletmego1The film is adapted from the novel of  British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned The Remains of the Day. Having not read the source material, I was obliged to take this material on its own merit and so here it goes. This is a numbing, wistful, sorrowful film and the dystopia is set in England circa 1978 in a boarding school. That’s where we first meet the students at Hailsham, who are special individuals with an important purpose in society. They will grow up to be “Carers” and “Donors” in society so that others might be given life. Although it’s an important role it ultimately means a shorter life expectancy compared to normal individuals and they are completely isolated from the outside world until their adult years.

The main people of interest are Kathy, who quickly befriends Tommy, a boy who is often made fun of, and she is secretly smitten. But as time passes one of her closest companions Ruth steals him away from her despite constantly making fun of him initially. Now as they get ready to move onto the next stage of their lives at The Cottage, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is noticeably still hurt that Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is with Ruth (Keira Knightley) and not her. That plagues her and tears her apart inside. You can see it in her eyes and body language, although she never says it explicitly. It’s there.

I must admit, not having read the novel, I have a feeling I did not grasp all the ins and outs of this world, but I did understand what this love triangle meant for those involved. Also, in the back of their minds, they know life as they know it will be ending soon enough. After years pass Kathy is now a “Carer” and is reconnected with both her old friends, who look a lot more gaunt than they ever did before. Ruth admits she should never have come between the other two and they do get together, but it seems far too late for another love story.

neverletmego2Never Let Me Go speaks to the transience of life, the limited time we have on this earth because in the case of these characters life is even shorter. It got to me with its melancholy and I don’t mean that it simply saddened my mood, but by the denouement, I felt deeply affected. Keira Knightley’s role seemed rather unextraordinary although necessary. The real interest for me was watching the relationship form between Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield before being quickly taken away. Then hearing the narration of Mulligan as she tries to make sense of this story and what has happened. On a lighter note, the hairstyles in the film are quite impressive with the bangs and whatever Garfield has going on there near the beginning.

3.5/5 Stars