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

Fargo (1996)

fargo1The Coen Brothers have always been an interesting case for me. I admit that there are still a lot of their films that I wish and need to see. Films like True Grit and Fargo I find thoroughly enjoyable or at least passable, but they do not completely resonate with me. However, I certainly respect them as writers, directors, and auteurs, because they know the lineage of film as a medium and they have their own unique way of approaching movies. It’s often clever, unique, and carries a wickedly funny tone no matter their subject matter.

Fargo is arguably their greatest work, following a kidnapping and murder investigation that involves Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis. William H. Macy is your standard Midwestern dupe Jerry Lundegaard, who makes an honest living selling cars. However, there’s another area of his life that’s not so honest. He’s in desperate need of money; we don’t know the reason, but he has resolved to hire two men to kidnap his wife. It doesn’t make much sense to the audience or the easily agitated crony Carl (Steve Buscemi). However, Jerry has a rich father in law with the necessary funds to bail out his daughter. And so it goes.

Except after the deed is done Carl and his taciturn accomplice Gaear get stopped by a highway patrolman and things are downhill from there. Murder, and blood, and more murder, all on a snowy Minneapolis evening.

The next morning pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) leaves her hubby and heads to the scene of the crime where she quickly pieces together the turn of the events. The search is on for the vehicle, and she questions a couple of prostitutes who aren’t much help except pointing out one of the men was “funny looking.”

Meanwhile, everything is falling apart on Jerry’s end with his father in law and he even gets paid a visit by Gunderson. When the drop finally does take place, Carl is livid when he is met by Wade instead of Jerry. He’s not messing around and neither is Jerry. Crime scene number 2 is set up. Carl finds a snowy locale to bury the payoff and heads back to the cabin, but he’s about had it with Gaear and the feelings are mutual.

Meanwhile, after a disturbing meeting with an old high school classmate Mike Yanagita (a rather troubling performance by Steve Park), Marge decides to question Jerry once again, and this time she gets somewhere. The reunion with Mike sets something off in her head.  Another tip eventually leads her to Gaear and his friendly neighborhood wood chipper. Being the pro-cop that she is, Marge subdues the culprit and gets an ABP out on Jerry which leads to his arrest. After a successful day at the office, it’s back to fast food and tv in bed with her loving husband Norm.

Fargo, to its credit, exudes a Midwestern charm thanks to all its colloquial “You betchas, darn tootin’s, heyas”, and so on. Perhaps most effectively it mixes the mundane and the violently shockingly in one pot of inspiration. The two-pronged story following two very different worlds somehow meets in the middle amidst all the improbability. The Coens start the film off labeling it as “based on a true story” and that opening statement had many people tricked. I myself was taken in the first time I saw it because however outrageous the following events are we trust the words of the filmmakers guiding us. And in the characters of Marge, Jerry, and most everyone else there is a charm or normalcy that feels so familiar. Thus, the Coens could get away with such outrageous plotting, because it so often felt grounded in truth.

4/5 Stars

No Country for Old Men (2007)

fa50f-no_country_for_old_men_posterStarring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin, with the Coen Brothers directing, the film opens with a voice-over as a sheriff reminisces about an unrepentant killer he put away.  The year is 1980 in Texas and we watch as a ruthless killer (Bardem) is arrested and then breaks free. At the same time a hunter (Brolin) happens upon a bloody scene that has to do with a cache of drugs. After he searches around Llewlyn finds $2 million and tires to get away with it. All too soon he is being tracked by the psychopathic killer to various hotels. They have one bloody confrontation and after fleeing once more into Mexico, Llewelyn decides to drop the money off with his wife. However, pretty soon he is dead and the sheriff must find this killer who is on the loose. The hit man is not quite done and finishes off some business before getting into a car accident that forces him to flee. The film ends as the now retired sheriff talks with his wife, leaving the film’s ending open. This film is very violent and Bardem’s character is so noticeable because he has absolutely no humanity in him. In these bleak events there is not much hope, so if you want a fluffy film you will not find it here.

4.5/5 Stars