Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer-songwriter whose career is stuck in mud. He is certainly very talented but his unwillingness to bend from what he thinks is best has likely cost him a real shot at making it big. Combine his inflexibility with an inaccessible personality and circumstances that often lean toward bad luck, every day is an upstream battle. He does not even have a place to sleep.
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the look, the mood, and the right actors but it lacks one important element: a reason for us to wish to see the next scene. Though it is not without a sense of humor, the picture is one note in that things are simply allowed to happen to the main character. We watch Llewyn sleepwalk through his rotting career. Since a series of unfortunate turn of events do not have much depth to them, Llewyn’s journey is most depressing.
The film jolts to life when the protagonist performs with nothing but his voice and a guitar. I enjoyed the way Isaac allows Llewyn to be vulnerable when singing and a wall once again when the melody stops. It communicates that the man is not entirely incapable of connecting. Perhaps he is afraid or hurt or simply not ready. In a way, a part of him died after Mike, his musical partner, committed suicide.
The Coen brothers know how to frame the performances. Oftentimes the camera is up close: from the waist up with occasional close-ups during the chorus. They put us in the front row so that we can relish the tiny emotions of the faces and voices. Though the perspective pulls back once in a while to capture the space between the artist and the audiences, our connection to the performances are not allowed to waver. This is best shown when Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” to Mr. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a producer in Chicago.
When the songs stop, so does our involvement. The wait is about three to five scenes until the next one. In some ways, the structure of picture likens that of a mediocre album: the first two songs are great, the next three are passable followed by a good one, and then a few more fillers until a memorable track. There is an imbalance to film that I found almost unbearable. Couple that with a slow pacing, it becomes a challenge not to get frustrated.
Despite the dark brooding in the marrow of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the lack of substance is astonishing. Halfway through, I asked myself: “Am I enjoying this movie as a whole so far or are the songs keeping this thing afloat?” I leaned toward the latter. Since the centerpiece is the soundtrack with accompanying visuals, perhaps the Coen brothers might have been better off releasing a series of music videos.
★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The man with the scorpion jacket had three part-time jobs, not one of which fully described his isolated existence in the City of Angels. By day, he was a stuntman for action movies and a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man who gave him a job when he didn’t have any. By night, he was a getaway driver for criminals who needed the money for their own reasons. Driver (Ryan Gosling) only had one rule when it came to the heists: his clients had exactly five minutes to ransack the place and get back into the car. Whatever happened within the five-minute window, he was on their side no matter what. However, once the allotted time ran out, he was just another person in the street who kept his head down. “Drive,” based on a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was similar to Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” despite sporting vastly different milieus, for its control of visual style to highlight the bubbling disposition of a seemingly unemotional and reticent protagonist, punctuated use of violence, and sublime characterization through critical decision-making. When Driver met Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos), her son, who lived a couple of steps from his apartment, something inside him couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Driver and Irene eventually got closer through small gestures but what they had was more friendship than romance. Driver hoped to change that. On the way to a dinner date, Irene revealed that her husband (Oscar Isaac) was about to be released from prison. As they pulled over to a stoplight, the emanated red light covered Driver’s face. Though he remained emotionless, as if the husband’s presence was no real threat to what he, Irene, and Benicio could have, the red, acting like a black light, revealed what he attempted to cover up. The return of the husband could’ve taken the picture on a cheaply maddening route by allowing Driver and Standard to become rivals, sneering at each other and testing one another’s masculinity when Irene wasn’t looking. There was none of such sitcom-like set-up. Their relationship, as tenuous as it was, surprised me because Standard seemed to really appreciate what Driver had done for his family. And he should. But his freedom had a price which thrusted the film into bloody violence. Although the violence was mesmerizing, almost having a poetic lyricism feel to it, there was an understated sadness in having to inflict pain on others for the sake for information and, if necessary, take their lives. Hossein Amini’s screenplay was admirably paradoxical. Although Driver’s motivation was to protect Irene and her son from crooks, it seemed that with each kill, he grew further from his dream of being with them rather than toward. Thus, the violence, though necessary, did not feel at all glamorous. The violence was ugly and Gosling’s angelic face, coldly calculating at times, provided an excellent contrasting template. Lastly, I admired the film’s elegance in connecting every character. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Shannon’s longtime pal, and Nino (Ron Perlman) were allowed to shine in the latter half. Unlike the masked bandits that hired Driver at night, their motivations were more than just about money. Like Driver, they fought for what they considered to be very important to them. And that made them as lethal as scorpions.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) lived in Hailsham, an English boarding school led by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), all their lives. The three children shared a strong bond. Kathy and Ruth’s beds were next to each other so they learned to become friends over the years. Smart and artistic Kathy began to have feelings for Tommy who was kind-hearted but often rejected by his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, was one of Tommy’s passive tormentors but she wanted to make Kathy jealous so she began to spend more time with the social outcast. Miss Lucy’s (Sally Hawkins) arrival in Hailsham made an important impact in the trio’s lives because she revealed their true purpose. Many reviews kept their readers blind about the dark secret involving the children. I don’t think it’s necessary because the children being clones and future organ donors was just the template of this morally and emotionally complex story which was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The core of the story was how Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively, in later years) dealt with the revelation that they weren’t going to live long lives or realize any of their long-term dreams. It made me question how I would start living if I’ve been told that I could be notified at any time that someone needed my organs and I could possibly die for someone I haven’t met. None of the three tried to run away after their discovery. I was curious why they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was a selfish thing to do. Having made aware that they were clones, they were always on the lookout for Possibles, their look-alikes, the models in which they shared 100% of their DNA. The material made powerful implications that genes had more impact than the environment from which one was raised. For instance, Kathy’s belief that she was modeled from a prostitute or a pornographic actress because she had strong urges to have sex even as a child. She tried to stop those urges which made her shut down other important aspects of herself like acting on her attraction toward Tommy. Another moving element in the picture was Tommy’s misplaced expectations about a possible deferral from organ donations given that a couple was able to prove their love for one another. His willingness to look into the impossible reminded me of David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s highly underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Both characters wanted to be with someone they loved so desperately. They wanted to live a meaningful life so badly, they were willing to turn to the fantastic. “Never Let Me Go,” adroitly directed by Mark Romanek, was a poignant film that wasn’t solely about the ethics of organ donations and the cruel destiny laid out for the characters. Personally, I thought it was more about the powerless making small but critical decisions with the cards that they were given. The odds were against them, comparable to why we often find ourselves rooting for the underdogs in competitions.
The Greatest (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.
An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.