Movie Reviews - 2013 postsThursday January 02, 2014
Movie Review: Upstream Color (2013)
Actually I take back the warning. I don’t think there can be spoilers to “Upstream Color.” How could you spoil it? What would you reveal that might give away the goods? What are the goods?
A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is given a plant, or a worm, that allows her to be hypnotized by a character simply called, in the credits, Thief (Thiago Martins), who puts her on a binge path: he keeps her up for long periods drinking only water and has her extract her fortune, $36,000, from the bank. Then he lets her go. She eats all the food from the refrigerator and sleeps for long periods. At some point she wakes up but does she ever wake up? And isn’t this a lot of work for $36K? Surely there are better people for the Thief to hypnotize.
Sorry, logic. The movie’s not about logic. It’s about mood and atmosphere. It’s dreamlike and hypnotic and abstract. It’s some amalgam of Malick and Lynch but without the clarity.
Early on, the movie feels like a metaphor for substance abuse—you wake up jobless, penniless, and with the contents of the refrigerator all over the floor and the front of your clothes. You wake up confused and shamed. In the aftermath, you struggle to figure out who you are and where you belong.
Kris winds up commuting by train to a lesser job, where she meets, vaguely, Jeff (writer-director-editor-composer Shane Carruth), who vaguely romances her, and even more vaguely marries her. He too has a past. The same past? Hypnotized by the worm? Their story together, such as it is, is intercut with a character the credits simply call The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sound technician who also runs a pig farm that is harvesting those hypnotic worms, and who seems to be trying to introduce them into the ecosystem. This is done in the usual scientific way: by forcing them into the intestines of pigs, then gathering the offspring of those pigs into a canvas bag and dumping it into a river, where they die, decompose, and grow into beautiful flowers. Which might also be hypnotic. Or something.
Basically, “Upstream Color” is the arthouse version of the paranoid thriller just as “Spring Breakers” was the arthouse version of the exploitation film and “To the Wonder” was the arthouse version of the love story. 2013 has been a helluva year for bad arthouse versions of popular genre flicks.
But the critics loved it: an 88% rating from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if they were hypnotized into their good reviews.
I actually read these reviews looking for reasons to like “Upstream Color” but I came away with more reasons to not like it. These quotes, remember, are from the positive reviews:
- “Even as I write this, I’m aware of making the various building blocks used in ‘Upstream Color’ sound impossibly silly and arch.” -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
- “However you watch it, it’s a movie that will mean more for you if you don’t worry about what’s happening ...” -- Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
- “It’s not that it’s not intriguing, but Carruth has withheld any sense of glue or cohesion or even a clue as to what he’s getting at.” -- Margaret Pomeranz, At the Movies
To be fair, the movie is more about enigma and inscrutability and identity, and Carruth is obviously talented; but throughout I kept asking myself, “Is this how life feels?” My answer? Kinda, sorta, at times. Then Carruth would cut to the pig farmer.
To be unfair, the critical acclaim for movies like “Upstream Color” (and “Spring Breakers”) is the kind of thing that kills interest in what critics have to say.
One final quote. It’s from Patricia when the credits appeared signaling the end of the movie:
“No. Really? The fuck?”
Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)
The best scene in the best movie of 2012 was the moment in “Rust and Bone” when Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a former trainer at Marineland who has lost her legs to an orca, returns to her former workplace and stands in silence before a large glass tank. This is what I wrote a year ago:
She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An orca. The orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and [director Jacques] Audiard never says.
I was so naïve. I thought putting down an orca was like putting down a dog, but other factors come into play. Like money.
Actually, there are no other factors. It’s just the money.
Not whales, not killers
Here are some of the things you learn watching Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, “Blackfish”:
- Orcas are highly social mammals and travel in packs.
- When baby orcas are separated from the pack by hunting vessels, the rest of the orcas stay close and attempt to communicate. They don’t flee. They don’t abandon the child.
- “Killer whale” is a misnomer. Orcas are not whales and they don’t kill people. At the least, there’s no record of them killing any human in the wild.
- Native Americans call them “blackfish.”
- Orcas can live as long as we can.
But the doc is mostly about one orca: Tilikum.
In 1983, off the coast of Iceland, a male baby orca, two years old and 4,000 pounds, was separated from its mother and taken to SeaLand in Victoria, B.C. It was named Tilikum. He performed there for years. The trainers liked him. But in February 1990, a marine biologist and competitive swimmer named Keltie Byrne, 20, slipped into the pool with Tilikum and two females and the whales, mostly Tilikum, held her underwater. She tried to surface and call for help, but she was held under again. She drowned. That was the first.
Apparently SeaLand was a sad little place, poorly run, and when it went under Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando. He performed there daily. Then in 1999, a 27-year-old man snuck into SeaWorld one night and jumped or slipped into the orca tank. He was found naked and dead atop Tilikum the next morning. Then in February 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer, was pulled into the water by Tilikum. The other trainers eventually distracted Tilikum and he let her go, but by then she was already dead: beaten, drowned, scalped.
That’s when Tilikum was finally put down.
Kidding. He returned to performing shows at SeaWorld Orlando in 2011. Maybe you’ve seen him there. Maybe you paid money to see him. Why not? It’s a free country.
Not just Tilikum
The big question in “Blackfish,” unanswered and unanswerable, is this: Why did Tilikum kill Dawn Brancheau?
The corporate line, the SeaWorld line, is that it was a mistake. Dawn was wearing her hair in a ponytail, and Tilikum caught her ponytail, and yadda yadda. It wasn’t malicious; it was user error. Many of the talking heads in the film, former trainers themselves, dispute this. They say Dawn was their best. If it happened to her, they say, it could happen to anyone.
The doc’s line is this: Tilikum, over his lifetime, has been severely traumatized. He was separated from his family at a young age. He was bullied and scarred in captivity, and often kept in tiny 20x30 holding pens. He’s a mammal that was born to swim the ocean and instead swims in a tiny prison of water. He performs tricks to be fed.
We have our doubts about SeaWorld but we’ll never really know the answer.
But there’s a bigger question, unraised, in “Blackfish”: Why do we go to places like SeaLand and SeaWorld to see creatures like Tilikum performing tricks in such unnatural settings in the first place? Why does this appeal to us? So we can see these beautiful creatures close up? In safe settings? Without effort? Even though we know—all of us know, deep down—that this is not the place for them?
“All whales in captivity are all psychologically traumatized,” says one of the talking heads in the doc. “It’s not just Tilikum.”
“When you look into their eyes,” another says about orcas, “you know someone’s home.”
“In 50 years,” a third says, “we’ll be looking back and saying, ‘My god, what a barbaric time.’”
Patricia agrees. We watched the doc together. She only lasted 10 minutes into “The Cove,” the 2009 Academy-Award-winning documentary about the mass killing of dolphins in Japan, because she can’t stand seeing animals suffer; but she made it through “Blackfish.” Even so, she wore a look of horror during its 88-minute runtime. Afterwards, I asked what bothered her: Was it the whales in captivity or the killing of humans?
“Oh, the whales in captivity,” she said. “I could give a shit about the people.”
“Blackfish” is a good starter to a conversation we should’ve had decades ago. Will this conversation go anywhere now that “Blackfish” has been released? Well, you know us.
Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie ruined by flashbacks.
Could it have been saved? I don’t know. I don’t know if the foregrounding story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) refusing to sign over the copyright of her great character Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), then finally acquiescing, allowing the 1964 musical to be made (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), and to gross ($102 million, $629 million adjusted), and to win (five Academy Awards, including best actress), I don’t know if this story could have been salvaged. But it’s so intercut with the other one, the story of P.L Travers’ childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia—the flashbacks that Explain All—that it has no chance. It’s the cocaine cut with baking powder. It’s the Julia cut with Julie.
“Mr. Banks” was probably a goner anyway. A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney? Talk about synergy. But at least I found the foregrounded story vaguely interesting. The other one? In Australia? Kill me now.
He’s a drinker, see?
For a while, Walt Disney’s name goes unmentioned. It’s just he. It’s just assumed. I’d say it’s like the unutterable name of God but it’s more like the unnecessary name of God. It is he who rules beneficently over all.
The she is often assumed, too. Maybe they should have gone on assuming. Because once they start using definite names, chaos ensues. Walt Disney insists on being called “Walt” but Mrs. Travers insists on calling him “Mr. Disney.” She wants “Mrs. Travers” but Walt calls her Pamela, or worse, Pam. The chauffer (Paul Giamatti) calls her “Mrs.” while she doesn’t even know his name until the third act. It’s all very British vs. American, uptight vs. loosey-goosey, and should’ve been funnier than it is.
It’s not even until the third act that Walt discovers P.L. Travers’ real name isn’t Travers; it’s Goff. “Travers” was her father’s name. This is news to him but not to us—we’ve been getting the Goff story from the beginning—but it raises questions. You’d think with all of Disney’s money and power he would’ve been able to figure this out. Like 20 years before. But I guess we all need a third-act reveal. Even when it’s not very revealing.
How many flashbacks to Australia circa 1906-07 do we get in this movie? They just keep coming. And in chronological order, too. So nice when memory works that way.
At first they’re idyllic. A young girl (Annie Rose Buckley), her handsome father (Colin Farrell), the great, lazy outdoors (dry grass next to babbling brooks). Then they move, from Maryborough, Australia to the end of the line: Allora. He has a job as a bank manager. But, uh oh, the bottle appears. He’s a charmer, yes, but a drinker, see. We get several examples of his humiliation, and hers. The girl, Ginty, actually aids and abets, and he winds up in bed, coughing blood. From drinking? No, influenza. So why are we focusing on the drinking? For the shame of it, I guess. For the dull storyline of it.
Ah, but a magical figure appears: a strict nanny who will save all (Rachel Griffiths). Except she doesn’t. The father dies as the girl, Ginty, brings him pears. That’s why, see, Mrs. Travers hates pears. That’s why Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers didn’t create her to save the children; she did it to save the father. Her father.
She’s a curmudgeon, see?
Anyway, all of these godawful flashbacks help explain why, in the present day, 1961, P.L. Travers is so persnickety, so adamant, so ready to sabotage an absolutely lovely musical that just wants to make everyone ever so heppy. It’s all about her and her effed-up past, when the real dilemma is what he does with British children’s classics. The fluff they become.
We get a flash of this. In her hotel suite in LA, she finds great heaps of stuffed animals based on Disney characters, along with fruit baskets that contain—no!—pears, which she promptly tosses several stories down into the hotel pool. Then she picks up a big stuffed version of Winnie the Pooh and sighs. “Poor A.A. Milne.” She should have kept going. Peter Pan. “Poor J.M. Barrie.” Then her own creation: “Poor me.”
At this point, she’s allowed Disney only an option on the property, so she has the right of first refusal. And second. And third. She takes them all. She doesn’t want a cartoon. She doesn’t want animation of any sort. She doesn’t want the color red in the movie. “Mary Poppins is not for sale!” she tells him. “I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.” Hanks plays Disney as oblivious. How could anyone not like what I do? What I’ve made? It’s the happiest place on Earth! She’s the grumpiest person on Earth in the Happiest Place on Earth. There should’ve been more humor to mine from this as well.
Instead, we veer wildly. Travers goes from totally uncompromising to totally compromised (by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” of all songs) to storming back to England when she discovers there will be animated penguins, forcing Uncle Walt to actually do research on her, and figure out about her father, and fly to England to not only save the day but commiserate. He tells her his own sad tale—of the harsh winters of turn-of-the century Kansas City, Mo., and of his father’s belt—which is why he does what he does. See? They’re doing the same thing. It’s papering over the pain. It’s making the story come out right. It’s the Disney version. Then he holds onto her hands: Let him make the Disney version of her story, so that, together, they can save Mr. Banks.
Which is what happens.
Interestingly, in the epilogue, at the world premiere of “Mary Poppins,” Uncle Walt is a bit distant from P.L. He doesn’t even invite her to the premiere. (Apparently true.) But she shows, and she cries, and she approves. (Apparently untrue.) For her father is saved onscreen for all time. Because that’s what movies do. They give us the pretty little lies we all crave.
Except P.L. Travers didn’t crave it. She hated it. She hated the Disney version.
Consider “Saving Mr. Banks” the ultimate revenge of Disney Corp. P.L. Travers was a pain in the ass, refusing, for a time, to allow Mary Poppins to be turned into one of Disney’s silly creations. So they waited. And waited. And waited. And then they did the same to her.
Movie Review: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)
Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”) is well-named. Sure, it’s episodic and goes on a bit long (148 minutes), and I kept seeing endings before the ending. Oh, it’s going to end here. Then it didn’t. Or here. No. But its ending was a good ending, probably better than the other endings I felt. Above all, it’s beautiful to look at and to contemplate. It’s pungent in its beauty.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), 65, wise in his age, bemused in his stance, idle with his time, is on a sort of search. He’s not searching for meaning so much as a reason to keep going. At one point he says, “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and this is just before he disappears rather than look at the naked photos of a beautiful woman, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), he just slept with. So: high standards. At another point he sees a giraffe, a beautiful giraffe staring down from on high and surrounded by a half-circle of ancient Roman columns; and the two, Jep and the giraffe, stare at each other until Jep’s magician-friend arrives and explains the giraffe. It’s part of his act. He makes it disappear. And Jep leans close and asks, “Can you make me disappear?” That’s when we realize the extent of Jep’s ennui. He shows the world a bemused face, but inside, particularly in the morning light after another party, he’s desperate. His magician-friend has to tell him that if he could make people disappear he wouldn’t be where he was. “It’s just a trick,” he says.
A life in tatters
On the surface, Jep has little to complain about. He’s a spry 65, still living the sweet life, la dolce vita, in modern-day Rome, with friends, parties, work, women, and a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking the Colosseum. I’m talking the fucking Colosseum. He came to Rome at 26 and got sucked into the whirl of the high life, and he didn’t just want to be part of it; he wanted to be its king. He wrote a slim novel, acclaimed, called “The Human Apparatus,” and has been living off of that, and a few writing gigs and interviews for major magazines, ever since. He wants to write more but wine, women and parties keep getting in the way.
Sound familiar? It’s basically the dilemma of Marcello Rubini, Marcello Mastroianni’s character in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Rubini kept getting sucked into la dolce vita, which wasn’t (dolce), while Jep keeps searching for la grand bellezza, which, ultimately, is (bello).
We get disconnected, sometimes absurd scenes a la Fellini. Jep watches a performance artist, naked but for a diaphanous hijab, run into an ancient stone structure, then declare, to the outdoor audience, “I don’t love you!” to applause. Turns out he’s interviewing her for his magazine and with a smile refuses to accept any of her “artistic” responses. He tries to get to know his neighbor, who refuses to speak, and hosts parties on his balcony, to friends who refuse to shut up. He gets into it with one friend, a beautiful woman and Communist Party member named Stefania (Galatea Ranzi). She brags about all she does, the children she’s raised, the 11 books she’s written, and refuses to see the lies she lives with every day. She demands he gives examples. He does, to the discomfort of everyone else, and with that same sad smile on his face. Then he says this:
Stefania, mother and woman, you’re 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?
That’s not a bad end philosophy but we’re still near the beginning of the movie. So what can our man learn?
This? The great love of his life, Elisa, seen in flashback (Anna Luisa Capasa), dies, and her husband of 35 years comes to Jep in tears, telling him “She always loved you.” He’d cracked her diary and read her thoughts and he barely comes up in them. “Thirty five years and I’m mentioned as a ‘good companion,’” he says. Jep tries to comfort him, though he’s secretly thrilled, though later in the movie it’s Jep who wants answers. Elisa, long ago, left him so he wants to know why she did this if she loved him, and he asks if he can read that diary. But by this point it’s been burned. By this point the widower is now with another woman, and happy again, and life continues.
Jep gets involved with a woman, Ramona, the daughter of an old friend. She thinks he’s after sex but he’s more interested in the her of her, and maybe in the distraction of it all. The sex comes later. So does death.
There are great lines throughout. Stefania calls him a misogynist, and he replies that he’s a misanthrope not a misogynist—a line I swear I’ve used in the past. Much later they’re dancing at an outdoor function and they have this exchange—lines which I wish I’d used in the past:
Jep: Have we ever slept together?
Stefania: Of course not.
Jep: That’s a big mistake. We must make amends immediately.
Why doesn’t the companion of Jep’s dwarf publisher ever speak? “Because he listens.” Why are the trains, the conga lines, at Jep’s parties the best? “Because they go nowhere.” For a movie I feared would not be about character or dialogue, this one has great examples of both.
Your earlier, funnier movies
Probably the key question of the movie is this: Why did Jep never write a second novel? Everyone wants to know. Even a future saint.
Near the end, Jep is hosting Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), a 103-year-old nun who has worked her whole life with the poor. She has handlers, a PR man who answers questions, so for a time we don’t even know if this husk of a person, this toothless, wrinkled woman, can speak. But finally she does. And one of the first things she says is: “Why did you never write a second novel?” It’s like the running gag of “your earlier, funnier movies” in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” which is itself a takeoff on Guido’s “next movie” in Fellini’s “8 ½.” Homage upon homage.
And it’s here that Jep finally gives an answer. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he says, smiling his sad smile. “But ... I didn’t find it.” It’s around this time that Sister Maria gives her own answer to an oft-asked question. The rumor is that she eats only roots. People want to know why. So she tells Jep. “Do you know why I only eat roots? Because roots are important.”
Is this her advice about finding the great beauty? Does this help him, in the end, find the great beauty? By the end, he’s writing a novel anyway. We get its beginning in a voiceover. “So let the novel begin,” he says. “After all, it’s just a trick.”
“The Great Beauty” is a movie I could see again, and not just because it’s beautiful but because I’m curious about all that I missed amid its swirl. Jep, like Marcello before him, straddles the profane and the sacred, the great pointlessness and the great beauty. One assumes the two are inexorably intertwined; that if you are lucky enough, you suffer through one to get to the other. But that’s too neat, too definite. “The Great Beauty” is more open-ended. It opens its arms wide and lets you enter.
Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
It’s the ending.
I’d heard it was the way the Coens treated him. They were like Old Testament gods toying with their creation again, making sure nothing went his way again, and people were, I heard, objecting. But that’s not the problem with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The problem is the ending. It just ends. Au revoir.
It ends where it begins, but is it ending where it began—i.e., with the same scene— or is it merely similar to the opening scene, as waking up at the Gorfeins’ place at the end (purring kitty, sticking head sideways out doorway) is similar to waking up in the beginning? It’s part of the nightmarish cyclical nature of the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), and of all of our lives, really. He and we are trapped in it and we’re not allowed out. Except one way.
We get Bob more prominent in the end, a young Bob Dylan coming onto the Gaslight Cafe stage with a bit of a song that sounds like Llewyn’s, or like traditional folk songs anyway (the whole “fare the well” thing), which is the final nail in the coffin for this Dave Van Ronk-alike. The Coens own up to that, by the way: the Van Ronk comparison. Even the album names and covers match. But it stops there. Van Ronk ruled. He was the Mayor of MacDougal Street, and beloved. Llewyn is compressed, bitter, and so very very tired. He is the talent doomed to never be known. He is the modern ...
Let me back up for a second.
There are some great line readings in the movie, particularly from Carey Mulligan as Jean, part of the folksinging husband/wife duo Jim and Jean (Jim = Justin Timberlake), but my favorite may be from F. Murray Abraham, who plays Bud Grossman, AKA Albert Grossman, the man who managed Bob Dylan, and who created Peter, Paul and Mary. The great odyssey in the movie, the attempt to get out, and up, rather than out and down, which is what Llewyn’s former singing partner does (off the George Washington Bridge), is Llewyn’s trip to Chicago to play for Bud at the Gate of Horn. It’s nightmarish getting there, sometimes even hellish, but he does it. And there’s this devilish figure waiting for him at the end.
Llewyn has a copy of his album with him, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but Bud, rather than listen to the record, wants to hear him live. “You’re here, play me something.” Pause. “Play me something from inside Llewyn Davis.” That’s it. It’s perfect. It has just the right soupçon of condescension about Llewyn’s album title and maybe his talent. F. Murray is so good in such a small part, and you’re so grateful to be seeing him onscreen again, that you might not make the connection immediately. I didn’t. It wasn’t until we were walking back to the car, Patricia and I, talking over the movie, and I was thinking that Llewyn Davis was the talent destined to be unknown, the talent usurped by the greater talent, Bob Dylan, making him ... of course! ... the modern Salieri, the man usurped by Mozart in “Amadeus,” and who was played by, of course, F. Murray Abraham.
Of course Llewyn isn’t even Salieri. Salieri was hugely successful in his time, beloved by kings, but he also recognized the greater talent in Mozart. Llewyn gets nowhere. And does he even recognize the greater talent in Dylan? We don’t know. He listens for a few seconds and then leaves to get beat up in the alleyway for past crimes.
At the Gate of Horn audition, Llewyn plays a beautiful ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane,” and plays it well, and there’s a pause. Then Grossman says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Then he talks up Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), the too-innocent, cereal-slurping, folk-singing soldier stationed at Fort Dix, who, Grossman says, “connects with people.” Meaning Llewyn doesn’t. But Grossman gives him a way out. How is he with harmonies? Does he want to be part of a group he’s putting together? This will be Peter, Paul and Mary, one assumes, and Llewyn could’ve been Paul in that configuration, but he says no. He’s a solo act. It’s his way or the highway so it’s the highway. CUT TO: Llewyn struggling comically forward in the snow against the bitter Chicago wind.
Maybe that should’ve been the end: rejected by Salieri. But the Coens needed Llewyn to return to New York and get trapped in the bottle again.
Please Mssrs. Coens
I’ll say this: Not many filmmakers do place better than the Coens, whether it’s Florida in the 1930s, Minneapolis in 1967, or Greenwich Village in 1961. The streets Llewyn walks down all seem like the street Dylan walks down with Suze Rotolo on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
They get all the little details right: the caricatures of Llewyn’s agent, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), that he has framed on his walls, along with the framed copy of SING OUT! magazine, the folk music staple. Even the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), the ultra-liberal, upper west side couple who let Llewyn stay there, are perfect. Their guests, too, Marty Green and Janet Fung, who rename themselves the Greenfungs, not to mention the humorless bearded music historian Joe Flom (Bradley Mott). I’m curious, though, why the Coens named him thus, after the famous M&A attorney. And why name Llewyn’s former singing partner, the one who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, Mike Timlin? What is it with the Coens using other people’s names? We got Ron Meshbesher in “A Serious Man” and Al Milgrom here. Is it homage? Do they like funny sounding names?
Should we worry about the Old Testament quality to the Coens? They tend to punish all of their creations (it’s called a story) but a few are allowed happy endings: Herbert and Ed McDunnough, Jeff Lebowski, Ulysses Everett McGill. Most are not: Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis. What do these last have in common? Too much pride and prickliness. And Jewishness. The Coens are like Bernard Malamud this way: tougher on their own.
One of the oddities of the trailer is that everyone rails against Llewyn, particularly Jean, calling him an asshole (in another great line reading), but he never does anything really assholish in the trailer; he’s simply put-upon. But in the movie he is an asshole: he sleeps with Jean, explodes at the Gorfeins, gets drunk and yells obscenities at a kindly old woman playing a harp at the Gaslight because he’s mad at someone else. He’s got that prickly, prideful solitariness.
Does his need to be alone relate to the death of his former partner? The Timlin tragedy just hangs in the background. It’s a dull ache in Llewyn’s side that never goes away but is never explained. Same with the 2-year-old in Akron. Same with Jean. Most of Llewyn’s crimes are in the past. When we catch up with him he’s about to be punished.
Hang me, oh hang me
“Llewyn Davis” is also a movie about music, and the music, produced by T. Bone Burnett, is exceptional. The Coens give us entire songs. They hold on the performer, singing, and Oscar Isaac can sing.
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn sings in the beginning, and for the rest of the movie the Coens come close to doing it. Do Llewyn’s travails make him a better performer? That would be the easy way out of the story. That’s what most Hollywood movies would do. Llewyn is on this odyssey, often with Ulysses the cat, and he comes back a wiser man, and that wisdom leads to success. That’s the lie Hollywood often tells us, because it’s the lie we often tell ourselves, because otherwise why all this? Why travails, and pain, and sorrow, if it doesn’t lead to something? But here Llewyn’s travails lead to Dylan’s success.
I think I’ve actually written myself into liking “Inside Llewyn Davis." I want to see it again. The Coens often do this to me. The movie feels like an answer, and I’m just missing the answer, and maybe if I see it again I’ll find it. But I know I won’t. The Coens are masters at giving us the answer of the non-answer. This is another one.