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
I think we can all agree that the world wasn’t starving for another Men in Black film. It has been ten long years since Agent J and Agent K saved the world in the lousy Men in Black 2 and now they are back in a film that is a slight improvement over the 2002 disaster. Men in Black 3 is not a great film but it has great performances and truly incredible CGI to marvel at, but the absence of any fun action sequences cripples this lukewarm installment. Considering the film has a price tag of $215 million dollars, you’d think that it would have at least one “WOW” moment in there somewhere. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. Sony must have forgotten they were making a summer blockbuster for audiences who want to see things blow up. Throughout the runtime, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that everything that was playing out on the screen had been done before and much better at that. It felt like Sony just repackaged the original film, tied it up with recycled jokes, and put a big ribbon of 3D on it.
Men in Black 3 begins with the revolting alien menace Boris the Animal (Played by Flight of the Concord’s Jermaine Clement) breaking out of a massive prison that happens to be on the moon rather than good old Earth. Boris is also missing one of his arms and he is pretty pissed off about it. It turns out that his arm was shot off by Agent K (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) way back in July of 1969, who then took him into custody and shipped him to his lunar prison cell. Boris quickly figures out a way to time travel back to 1969 so he can kill the young Agent K (Played by Josh Brolin) before K can shoot off his arm and arrest him. He also wants to stop K from planting a device that protects earth from a massive alien invasion. After older K disappears, it is up to suave Agent J (Played by Will Smith) to travel back to 1969 and join forces with the younger (and nicer) Agent K to prevent the alien invasion and stop Boris before he completely alters history.
Men in Black 3 was plagued by script rewrites and multiple delays that almost drove director Barry Sonnenfeld to the breaking point. The good news is that despite all the rewrites, Men in Black 3 tells a fairly engaging little story with some mildly clever moments. The bad news is that screenwriter Ethan Coen doesn’t ever really do much with J’s appearance in 1969. He resorts to dated jokes like telling Andy Warhol that he’d “have no problem pimp-slapping the shiznit” out of him and complains about dated technology. The film only takes a few opportunities to really play with the race relations of the late 60’s, mostly in a scene where two white police officers stop J and accuse him of stealing the car he is driving. It is jokes like this that would have really went over big in 1997, when all of this seemed fresh and slightly innovative. If those jokes aren’t enough to make you roll your eyes, once again, the film cracks jokes about certain celebrities being aliens as well as extraterrestrials hiding in plane sight. Doesn’t it feel like 1997 in here?
What ultimately saves Men in Black 3 from crumbling right in front of our eyes is the acting, especially from Brolin, Clement, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who shows up as a neurotic alien who can see multiple futures that all have different outcomes. Brolin steals the show with his impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, an impersonation that is eerily spot-on. From the drawl in his voice to the sleepy eyes, Brolin is an absolute knock out, getting every twitch, step, and head turn just right. It is also the funniest aspect of Men in Black 3. Clement does a damn fine job making you remember him once the credits crawl across the screen. Boris could be one of the nastiest aliens from the Men in Black universe, snagging what has to be one of the most disgusting kisses in motion picture history. Coen and Sonnenfeld really hold back with his character and he is someone that I wished we had seen more of. The underdog of Men in Black 3 is Michael Stuhlbarg as the sweet Griffin, who turned out to be one of my favorite characters in Men in Black 3. He was just such a likable soul—one whose faith in humanity was so infectious, you couldn’t help but root for him.
As far as our two veteran protagonists are concerned, they fair about the same as they did in the previous two films. Smith is still the wild child, the one who is more concerned with making the job look good. The scenes in which he uses the Neuralyzer on crowds of people are some of his best. A touching last act twist gives his character a heaping amount of emotional weight that, in a way, comes a little too late. Jones, on the other hand, is absent through a good portion of the film, allowing Brolin to take the driver’s seat for a while. Jones is his usually crabby self, one who smiles by letting his face droop. I won’t deny that Smith and Jones do have an odd-couple chemistry that somehow has kept through three films and it is no different with Men in Black 3. They really find their groove early on and in a way, it is sad to see it cut off even if Brolin does a fantastic job.
The biggest problem I have with Men in Black 3 is the uneven action sequences that feature fine CGI, but just have no adrenaline to keep them moving. I was never on the edge of my seat once during the film. An action scene at the beginning that features multiple aliens seems like it was included just to give the partnering toy company some ideas for action figures. I couldn’t help but feel the same about the handful of new gadgets that we see. Sadly, Men in Black 3 plays things a bit too safe for my tastes. It seems to cater to the kiddies, who will surely eat it up and have a few good laughs at some of the slapstick moments. I feel like Men in Black 3 would have faired a little bit better last summer, when Hollywood had a fixation with period piece blockbusters, ones that were heavily interested in rewriting history (mostly with superheroes). Men in Black 3 ends with a showdown on Apollo 11 that is mixed with a handful of scenes showing in-awe spectators glued to their televisions screens, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to be blown away by this sublime moment. For all the eye-candy Men in Black 3 throws our way, I truly never felt like one of those grinning, in-awe spectators even though I so desperately wanted to. I was fighting back yawns.