Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
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.
In Time (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan got together and decided they were going to make a futuristic version of Robin Hood set against a Clockwork Orange-esque wasteland. The new techno thriller In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol, has a lot on its mind and plenty to say. Unfortunately, it’s reduced to rambling, off on a tangent and showing no signs of stopping. To be fair, In Time has an interesting premise; a few original bursts here and there that save it from being disposable filler at the local theater. The film exhaustively tells us that time is precious, blah, blah, blah. Well my time is precious too and this film was given way too much time to peer down at me from it’s soap box and preach. That is what In Time was built for—to preach. Lucky enough, the film had the good fortune to be made and released during the Occupy Wall Street protests, which is another element that works in it’s favor. For as ambitious as this film is, it never obtains the epic, morose scope that Nolan produces or the multilayered psychology Kubrick gave us.
In Time shows us a world where humans stop aging at twenty-five. Once they hit the said age, a digital clock on their forearm begins ticking and humans have to earn more time to survive. Rather than money, your job pays you in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc. Time is also used as the currency, where the more time you have, the longer you live. The world is also divided up into time zones, where a sinister police force called the “Timkeepers” can monitor how much time is in the specific zone. These time zones also separate the wealthy from the poor. Will Salas (Played by Justin Timberlake) comes from the slum Dayton, where one evening while visiting a seedy bar, stumbles across a wealthy man Henry Hamilton (Played by Matt Bomer) with a hundred years on his clock buying drinks for the crowd. A group of local gangsters called “Minutemen” set their eyes on him and threaten his life. Will narrowly saves Henry and hides him in a local warehouse where Henry explains to Will that he is one hundred and five years old and no longer feels the desire to live. While Will sleeps, Henry transfers all of his time to Will, making Will wealthy over night. Henry commits suicide and Will is captured on surveillance for suspicious behavior in the wake of the suicide. That evening, Will’s mother Rachel (Played by Olivia Wilde) does not have enough time on her for a bus ride and is forced to walk home. While desperately trying to reach Will for more time, her clock runs out and she dies in front of Will. Will sets out to drain the wealthy of as much time as he can, along the way meeting wealthy timelender Phillipe Weis and his beautiful daughter Sylvia (Played by Amanda Seyfried). Will is also being pursued by a relentless timekeeper named Raymond Leon (Played by Cillian Murphy).
Not an easy film to sum up, In Time does have a webbed storyline, but that’s not its problem. The film is often condescending, always assuming the viewer lacks the intelligence to follow what is going on. It’s under the impression that we can’t put together its unconcealed political message. It then drives its point home with such force, you almost want to shout “ENOUGH!” The film empties its narrative quickly, leaving the well dry for the last forty minutes of the movie. It’s just run, check in to hotel, steal more time, chase, repeat. There are characters that are not fleshed out enough, cramming them in at the beginning and then tossing them out the second Will meets Phillipe and Sylvia. I’m all for an intelligent thriller/blockbuster, but In Time thinks it’s a bit too smart. It also seems to demand that we take it seriously, but it’s difficult when the film is burdened with hammy acting.
After the film ended, one of my friends that accompanied me to our showing said he doesn’t think Justin Timberlake is capable of carrying an entire movie. He’s not a seasoned pro yet. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. He’s still an amateur in the acting game and trying to carry a film like this couldn’t have been the easiest task for him. When his mother bites the dust, Timberlake drops to his knees, wailing, and looks slightly like he is smack in the middle of a violent bowel movement. I didn’t buy his anguish and it’s unintentionally funny. This is not to say he doesn’t wield any talent, but he needs to stick to supporting roles until he really sharpens his acting a bit. He sometimes slips into overdramatics, attempting to embody the ominous hero but coming up short. He has yet to shake his pretty boy image.
The rest of the cast of In Time does an ample job with what they have to work with. Wilde does a reputable job for the little she is given as Will’s mother. I sometimes think she is capable of more than she produces, sometimes being reduced to just a pretty face and nothing more. You can’t help but bat an eye at some of the films she chooses to star in. Seyfried does fine work, working with something far more substantial than Twilight wannabe turds like Red Riding Hood. The vet here in all the sci-fi techno babble is Cillian Murphy as Raymond Leon. Murphy is a truly gifted actor that is always just below the radar. I wish he would get another major leading man role, as he always knocks it out of the park when he is in front of the camera (Seriously, just look at 28 Days Later, Red Eye, Batman Begins, and Inception!). Murphy does a good majority of the heavy lifting, even if he does look like he raided the wardrobe of The Matrix.
At the end of the day, In Time is an average thought provoking attack on capitalism and class rank. It also slips in some existential hooey but it’s fairly elementary and you will be just waving it off. Reluctant to embrace what it truly is, which is simply a futuristic Robin Hood thriller with some minor ideas and dressed in all black, it’s a decent little ride. You won’t be taking any of it home with you, replaying any major action sequences in your head, or raving about any performance outside of Murphy’s. You will be left wondering how Timberlake’s Salas magically morphs from desperate kid in the ghetto to ass-kicking superhero. Don’t concern yourself with it too much, you’ll never be told. In Time is uneven and bumpy, making me wish that I didn’t invest forty minutes of my time in the final act. If you’re in the market for a film in which all the actors and actresses look pretty, look no further than In Time.