by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences saw Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo was coming off a lengthy directing streak with 2010’s True Grit, a stunning remake of a John Wayne western that earned several Oscar nominations and almost universal acclaim from critics. After taking a small break and penning the screenplay for director Michael Hoffman’s 2012 film Gambit, the Coen’s return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which easily ranks as some of their best and moodiest work since No Country for Old Men. Comprised of washed-out cinematography, crackling dialogue, immaculate performances, and the Coen’s distinct brand of humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful period dramedy—one that explores the burning drive and stinging disappointment that many starving artists face on a daily basis. Though rich with eye-grabbing early 1960s set design and frigid atmospherics, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a complex character study. It allows us to voyeuristically glimpse inside the chilly world of a self-absorbed jerk as he sulks through New York City’s Greenwich Village in search of his big break and a couch to lay his weary head upon. The fact that we actually mildly root for Mr. Davis to make it as a folk singer is a testament to Oscar Isaac, who gives an extraordinary performance that is ripe with frustration, heartbreak, sarcasm, and exhaustion.
Inside Llewyn Davis picks up in 1961, with small-time Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) homeless and broke. In between gigs at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn still nurses wounds from his break-up with his singing partner, Mike, who recently committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Frustrated that his new solo album isn’t selling, Llewyn is forced to shack up on the couches of close friends, some of which have rocky relationships with the bitter musician. One of these close friends is Jean Berkey (played by Carey Mulligan), the wife of Llewyn’s friend and fellow-musician Jim (played by Justin Timberlake), who turns out to be pregnant after a one-night stand with Llewyn. In one final attempt to make it big, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago with rebel beat-poet Johnny Five (played by Garrett Hedlund) and cranky jazz musician Roland Turner (played by John Goodman) in the hopes of auditioning for famed producer Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). Along the way, Llewyn is forced to take care of an orange tabby cat that managed to get loose from an apartment that Llewyn was staying at. To make things worse, Llewyn learns another devastating secret about a past lover who moved to Akron.
While the Coen’s lighten the mood with doses of their eccentric humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a morose work of art that lingers on Llewyn’s testy attitude and self-inflicted turmoil. He scurries around New York City in the middle of winter, bundled up in a corduroy blazer and scarf, seeking out friends and family members in the hopes that they may lend him some money or give him shelter from the blustery cold. He is constantly taking verbal beatings from Jean, who absolutely detests him, but he does nothing to soften her blows. She calls him a loser and demands that he arranges for an abortion, and he retorts by calling her a conformist and rolling his eyes. When he isn’t busy pushing his friends away or refusing a winter coat from his manager, Llewyn is busy being combative with his sister and refusing to visit his sickly father. Despite the fact that he basically invites many of his problems, Isaac still manages to convey a deep-rooted pain that is visible in both Llewyn’s sleepy eyes and the aching folk songs that he cathartically belts out. You consistently get the impression that if Llewyn could just have one good thing happen, it might ease some of the tension that he carries with him. This is why you can overlook his long list of flaws and actually root for the guy.
Complimenting Isaac’s ornery and nomadic turn as Llewyn are equally complex performances from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and even Garrett Hedlund. Mulligan is a snippy ball of fury as Jean, who never misses an opportunity to call Llewyn an “asshole” for getting her pregnant. Watching the two butt heads is hilarious and exasperating, especially since Llewyn keeps lighting her short fuse. Justin Timberlake gives another surprising turn as Jim, Jean’s eager-to-help husband who does everything he can for Llewyn. Timberlake’s shining moment comes when he sings a song with Isaac and co-star Adam Driver called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a cutesy novelty track that will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the movie. Coen regular John Goodman is a scene-stealer as the baritone jazz musician Roland Turner, who scoffs at the music Llewyn makes and the cat that he carries around with him. There is a particularly disturbing scene that reveals that the rotund Roland has some fierce demons of his own. Garrett Hedlund is a man of mystery as Johnny Five, a greaser-like beat-poet who answers in grunts, growls, and one-word responses. Watching Llewyn attempt to make small talk with him is spectacularly awkward, especially when he denies Llewyn a cigarette by claiming he is out, only to light one up in front of the broke folk singer just moments later.
In true Coen fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis comes equipped with a must-hear folk rock soundtrack that warms the film’s zero-degree chill considerably. Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and several other colorful characters lend their musical talents to the soundtrack; delivering heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that can really make a room hush up and take notice. The darling of the film is undoubtedly the charming novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that will certainly be included in the Best Song category at the Oscar’s. Other standouts include Isaac’s rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” which he strums out for an unimpressed Bud Grossman, Isaac’s heart-and-soul final performance of “Fare Thee Well,” and a sweet little number by Stark Sands called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” In addition to the emotional folk soundtrack, the film is photographed in a dreamy, washed out manner that makes this week-in-the-life tale resemble a collection of forgotten polaroids that have been hiding in your attic since 1961. Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis is a soulful tune that won’t tickle everyone’s eardrums, but if you’re a fan of folk music or if you just can’t resist a morose Coen comedy, then you need to high tail it to the local theater and take a walk with this shaggy folk singer. It’s an American masterpiece that is downright impossible to forget.
by Steve Habrat
It has been nearly five long years since we heard from the flamboyant Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind such eye-popping spectacles like the contemporary kids-with-guns retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero + Juliet, the gonzo jukebox musical Moulin Rogue!, and the historical romance Australia. Well, folks, Mr. Luhrmann has returned to a theater near you in grand fashion with the 3D epic The Great Gatsby, a heavily anticipated big budget sugar rush that is based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hype around The Great Gatsby has been building since last fall, when the shimmering and sparkling trailers crashed into theaters and promised a Christmas release for the Leonardo DiCaprio period piece. At the last second, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Christmas release date and pushed the film back to summer 2013 and honestly, the summer movie season is a much better fit for this slick and hip adaptation. With absolutely nothing held back, Luhrmann gives The Great Gatsby a hip-hop makeover, showers it in confetti, fires off a seemingly never-ending amount of fireworks behind it, hands it a Four Loko, and then tosses it to an audience of teenagers raised on MTV, Jay-Z, and smartphones. The result is a gyrating eye-candy romance that will absolutely appall your English teacher and have your girlfriend swooning. It is style over substance every single step of the way, allowing it to feel right at home in a sea of fizzy summer blockbusters.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Yale graduate Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire), an aspiring stockbroker and writer who rents a home in West Egg, Long Island, during the summer of 1922. After settling in to his new home, Nick reconnects with his wealthy and beautiful cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) and her cigar-chomping husband Tom (played by Joel Edgerton), who attended Yale with Nick. Daisy and Tom quickly begin trying to set Nick up with vampy party-girl golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who seems to only show minor interest in Nick. Life seems to be going great for the young and naïve Nick, but he finds himself strangely drawn to his wealthy next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an enigmatic recluse who throws massive parties for the New York City elite yet remains unseen by his drunken guests. One day, Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild blowouts, something that is highly unusual for Mr. Gatsby. While wandering through the party, Nick comes face to face with Gatsby and the two form a fast friendship. As the two men bond, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy, who he met five years earlier and shared a brief but intense romance. Nick agrees to aid Gatsby in reconnecting with Daisy but in the process, he begins to uncover all the mystery that surrounds Jay Gatsby.
For the first hour of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann brings new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home.” He zooms between the East and West Egg like a ten-year-old boy who had way too many Snickers candy bars and Pepsi. When he gets bored doing this, he sends his camera flying into a rapidly growing New York City, dancing from skyscraper to skyscraper while Maguire looks up, down, and all around in astonishment. Then there are the party scenes, which are sure to get your heads bobbing and feet tapping. A non-stop stream of confetti is spit out at the audience while hundreds of extras shimmy, shake, and stumble to blaring hip-hop provided by Jay-Z and Kanye West. It is all shown to you in glorious 3D, which will have you fighting the urge to leap from your seat and join the fun. Somewhere in between the spraying champagne and fireworks, there are a few attempts to develop these characters that we are supposed to be invested in, but Luhrmann seems way too wrapped up in throwing the party of the year to pay much attention to them. When it finally winds down, he decides to get serious in extended montages of Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy loosing themselves in an endless summer of high price indulgence. It’s visually intoxicating and it certainly looks romantic, but it is also incredibly exhausting.
While the visuals will have you drooling, don’t forget to stop and admire the fine performances from the powerhouse cast. The style threatens to overshadow each and every one of them but they certainly hold their own when facing a mountain of CGI. DiCaprio owns the picture the second he emerges from the glittery shadows and early on, he hams it up in skinny pink suits that looks like they were provided by Gucci. His Gatsby is almost a caricature of the 1920s gentleman; grinning while referring to nearly every single person he meets as “old sport.” You could make a drinking game out of how many times he says “old sport,” although I doubt many people would be still standing by the end. As far as his burning passion is concerned, there certainly is fire in those eyes for Daisy. He attempts to impress her by dazzling her with wealth and promises of doing everything in the world together. When he needs to be tragic, he can certainly switch it on, especially in the last act of the movie. You never doubt that DiCaprio is thrilled to be reunited with his Romero + Juliet director and it is clear he is putting in 110%. A job well done, Mr. DiCaprio!
Then there is Mr. Maguire, who narrates through a raspy and fatigued tone that sounds like he was up all night chugging a bottle of whiskey with Gatsby (Someone grab him an Advil!). He is good with the role he is given but he never holds our attention like DiCaprio does. He simply sits on the sidelines, making observations about all the wild party animals around him. Mulligan is a breathy sunbeam as Daisy, who is caught between two warring millionaires pulling her in two separate directions. Mulligan is naturally talented, but her character never receives the development that it truly deserves which is an absolute waste. Edgerton gives DiCaprio a run for his money as the scowling Tom, who is constantly chomping down on a fat stogie and chasing every pretty girl he lays eyes on. He shares a war of words and wealth with DiCaprio in one of the film’s most intense sequences. Debicki is slinky and sexy as the gossiping golfer Jordan, who loves a big party because they are more intimate than a smaller gathering. Also keep an eye out for small but sharp appearances from Jason Clarke as gas station attendant George Wilson, who becomes a ball of fury in the last act of the film, and Ilsa Fisher as his unfaith sexpot wife, Myrtle, who jets off with Tom to seedy hotel rooms in New York City.
The real problem with Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is that it is all about panache. There is obsessive detail in the sets, the CGI is mindblowing, and the musical playlist will have audience members rushing home to purchase the soundtrack off iTunes, but this compromises substance. Sure, the idea of love lost and love found again is enticing but it just becomes a whiskey-fueled game of tug of war that conveniently ends with tragedy. To make it worse, it feels tacked on with a heavy sigh from the filmmakers, who clearly would rather be hanging out with scantily clad flappers lip-synching to Beyoncé. But, what else would you expect from someone like Luhrmann? Overall, it may be the nightmare of English teachers everywhere and it definitely rings hollow, but The Great Gatsby is a giddy parade of excess led by a cast and crew clearly having the time of their lives, all while Warner Bros. flits the bill. You’ll certainly get your money’s worth of visuals, but you won’t be moved in the slightest.
It has been a while since I posted one of these and I apologize for that. The newest film that I recommend you go out and pick up is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, an intense, existential, and unforgettable thrill ride of a film and a film that sits near the top of my best films of 2011. It is a must-see for the silent-but-extremely deadly performance from Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks as a sinister gangster who has it out for Gosling’s Driver. Boasting a pristine picture, a pulsing electronic score, and house-rattling action scenes, Drive is a film that you have to add to your Blu-ray collection. You’ll thank me later. If you wish to read my review of Drive, you can find the review here.
by Steve Habrat
To anyone who is considering seeing Drive, the new action thriller starring Ryan Gosling, you should be warned about what you will be getting yourself into. I say this because this is a fierce film. There are moments that are downright repugnant and not for those who disconcert easily. I had to search long and hard for the picture I used above because I felt that the main picture had to convey what this film really turns out to be. This noir-inspired, 80’s influenced retro picture thrives on its breakneck action, dismal atmosphere, ethereal electronic score, head-stomping violence, and a performance from Gosling that should guarantee him a spot in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. It will no doubt leave you in a state of shock, as the beginning of the film is relatively patient and discreet. Much to the dismay of the audience, it displays moments of pure, pretentious splendor. However, once Drive kicks things into high gear and it revs it’s supped up engine, this baby means business. And so does Gosling’s Driver. It all adds up to one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
I’ll tell you straight, this is an art film dressed up in action threads. It prefers complex characters to walking clichés. Gosling’s Driver is a man of a few soft grunts and sparse words. He flashes the occasional preoccupied smile at his next-door neighbor Irene (Played by Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio and he mostly keeps to himself. He effortlessly shrouds himself in mystery. The Driver (we never learn his actual name) drives stunt cars for movies, works in an auto mechanic shop, and also acts as a getaway driver for criminals. He has a strict line of rules that he lays down for the thugs that get in and out of his wheels. They have five minutes once they are inside, he does not carry a gun, when they are out, he belongs to them, and he only works for them one time. When Irene’s husband Standard (Played by Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, some goons that are coming to claim protection money demand that he robs a pawn shop to get them their riches, or they will kill Irene and his son. The Driver offers his services, but during the heist, things go horribly wrong. It turns out that this is just a small piece of a larger crime puzzle that is being controlled by two mobsters, the Jewish Nino (Played by Ron Pearlman) and Bernie Rose (Played by Albert Brooks). The Driver gathers himself and sets out to protect Irene and her son from the mobsters who are slowly closing in on them and are hell bent on wiping everyone out who can link them to the heist.
Drive feels like a synthesis of David Lynch films (Lost Highway especially), Quentin Tarantino, a forgotten 80’s action flick, Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, and Miami Vice swagger. It helps that the synthy score conjures up nostalgia every time it thumps over the speakers. The hot pink credits help too. But it’s Gosling’s unvoiced antihero that feels like the real relic. He feels like a lost hero from the Regan era. He’s emotionally complex, but also tough no matter what happens. Nothing fazes him and we play by his rules. He even nibbles at a toothpick, reminiscent of Eastwood’s cigar chewing Man with No Name. The film takes a hokey turn at the end when the Driver just begins finding all the mobsters he has set out to kill with little effort. Who knew it would be that easy? One would think that the writer and director would have added more of a build up before the end confrontation. The climax is sadly rushed, showing prominent similarities to Super 8 and Green Lantern (I understand they are drastically different movies, but their endings are extraordinarily similar). It just ends tersely. For a film that packs this much suspense and brute force, it left me wanting much more.
This film’s atmosphere, which is menacing and downright intimidating, adds to its own spellbinding success. At times, all you can do is laugh to soften the blow of its dead serious tone. It almost becomes a coping mechanism while watching the brutality of this film play out before you. The Driver always seems to lurk in the shadows. He works as a Hollywood stunt driver so it’s easy to assume he would live glamorously. Here the film evokes images that would seem appropriate in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Mullholland Drive, or Blue Velvet. There is evil lurking below all that glitz. There is also an existential haze to the film. The Driver lives on the edge, in the thrill of the moment. Every day could be his last. Director Nicholas Winding Refn has called the film a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of cult experimental films El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, whose films usually have a character on a quest for the meaning of existence. The viciousness of Drive certainly takes a page from Jodorowsky, as the film has some extreme gore, most notable is the elevator sequence. Gosling stomps a hit man’s face in to the point where it’s reduced to just red goop. Somewhere, French director Gaspar Noe is howling with delight. The audience I saw this with was howling in horror.
Drive consistently makes us ask the screen “Are you really going to go THERE?!” It always does, but it does have an unpredictable streak to it. You can never fully envisage it even if it is familiar. The film doesn’t rely on its violence and action (there is plenty, but not enough to satisfy some action fiends), but instead allows the chemistry between actors do the heavy lifting. Though the dialogue is limited between Mulligan’s Irene and the Driver, the moments they spend together are tender. When the Driver confronts gangster Bernie Rose, they fight with words rather than bullets or fists. “You will spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder,” Rose promises. It’s scenes like this that make every hair on your body stand up and churn your guts. Ron Pearlman’s Nino hams up the screen and he’s delightfully cartoonish. The film is the Gosling show, however, and with this role, I have to deem any project he is attached to in the future a must-see. He has become one of the most eccentric actors around.
Once you see Drive, you will never forget it. It’s like a parasite that worms its way in and posses you. I’ve found myself shaken up in the mere hours since I went to the theater to see it. The friends I went with were rattled and in a state of shock. You should know what you are getting yourself into when you see this. It’s not your conventional action film with clear-cut baddies and good guys. Everyone seems to have darkness in his or her hearts and cracked souls. Come year end, I will be singing its praises for all to hear. Drive is like a restored muscle car. It’s great to look at and when you see it, it pulls you in, but it’s what’s under the hood that counts. And Drive has a lot going on under the hood. Grade: A-