Talking Movies

January 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens return with their worst film since their mainstream disasters Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and this time round they can’t say their vision was distorted by mainstream pressures.

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Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a folksong at the Gaslight Cafe in 1961. Walking backstage he’s punched in the face, an unwelcome reminder of the Coens’ Gambit script. The effectively homeless Llewyn wakes up on the Gorfeins’ couch and leaves their flat in accidental possession of their cat. His next planned couch, that of occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), has been promised to earnest GI singer Troy (Stark Sands). Worse still Jean is pregnant and, unsure of the paternity, wants to abort the baby. The needful money comes from Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) inviting Llewyn to join Al Cody (Adam Driver) as a session player on Jim’s novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’. After Llewyn alienates everybody he knows he is reduced to sharing a car to Chicago with rude jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), in a quest to impress Chicagoan music impresario (F Murray Abraham). Can Llewyn finally get his voice heard?

You won’t care… Even if you’re still conscious after the tedium of the tedious road-trip, you won’t care because Llewyn is comprehensively as obnoxious a protagonist as you have ever seen. He’s an abrasive, unreasonable, uncaring, and only slightly talented egomaniacal dick. But he’s not compelling as a character, and he’s not even consistent. In a horrific scene he curses the inexplicably hospitable Gorfeins for wanting him to perform after dinner when he’s ‘a professional musician’. A few scenes later he performs to entertain the driving Johnny, even though he’s still ‘a professional musician’. A character this toxic infects everything… The crudity of dialogue is astonishing, and having Llewyn upbraided for his foul mouth doesn’t overcome it. The acting also decays: Mulligan shouts or snaps nearly all of her lines, snapping being one gradation below shouting with her, On the Road’s Hedlund’s appearance seems an unfunny in-joke, because he’s playing a meaner Dean Moriarty, and Goodman is on uncommitted auto-pilot.

I only love two Coen films, the most absurd ones: Raising ArizonaO Brother. I’ve long felt they were over-rated given their taste for crunching violence, blank characters, and a curious air of superiority, but this is a startling nadir. I can’t give you any reason to see Inside Llewyn Davis. Its full performances of minor folksongs can be bettered by throwing on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a truer sense of that scene can be acquired by reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, a more insightful study of a failing artist featuring Adam Driver is Frances Ha, and a more compelling abrasive guy getting into shouting matches stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I also can’t explain Inside Llewyn Davis’ existence. Singers need to perform to an audience, and Llewyn can’t properly connect with audiences, so his unrelenting monstrousness isn’t redeemed personally or artistically. If that’s the point, then… we all encounter enough jerks in life without needing films about them…

The Coen Brothers often give the impression they have a smirking contempt for their cipher characters, but this film shades over into contempt for their adoring audience in addition.

0/5

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October 12, 2012

On the Road

Acclaimed director Walter Salles tackles Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 novel only to demonstrate directors shied away from it for 55 years for a good reason…

On the Road is a fiercely autobiographical work as all the ‘characters’ are barely disguised real people. Our hero, aspiring novelist Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley), lives in Queens, NYC. In conservative 1947 his best friend is flamboyantly gay aspiring poet Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge). Into their bohemian scene roars Dean Moriarty aka Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund), a literary borstal boy with a 16 year old wife Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart). But hanging out with bebop trumpeters like Terrence Howard’s cameoing saxophonist cannot satisfy Dean’s wanderlust and so he drags Sal and company across America on a series of road-trips. Sal works as a picker in California, Dean gets romantically entangled with the icy Camille (Kirsten Dunst) in San Francisco, and both men hang out with the genteel junky Bull Lee aka William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen) in the Deep South. But what drives Dean onwards?

Hedlund is not the Dean you’d imagine from the novel, but he improves on his inert Tron: Legacy hero even if he occasionally channels Tyler Durden to an embarrassing degree. Control star Riley is equally unlikely casting; especially in affecting a curiously wheezy American accent. Mortensen impresses most as an unexpected voice of common sense who accuses Dean of ‘compulsive psychosis’ and ‘psychopathic irresponsibility’. Poor Sturridge, doing a good Ginsberg, exemplifies this film’s failure. Compared to David Cross’ Ginsberg in I’m Not There Sturridge’s version is unbearably annoying – because Kerouac’s dialogue shorn of Kerouac’s dazzling and comic prose makes ‘Carlo’ appear incredibly self-important and self-involved. The fact that the hackneyed ‘mad ones’ riff is spoken as voiceover when Dean and Carlo are literally monkeying around hammers home the problem that it’s impossible to like these characters, or believe they’re talented (not least as Dean seems to take 18 months to read 1/5th of Swann’s Way.)

Jose Rivera’s script dashes thru the novel’s events without obvious purpose, and Salles’ direction veritably trumpets minor appearances by major actors (Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss). This film is simply soaked in sex, drugs and freeform jazz, yet is desperately dull. It never actually feels like fun on the road, and you groan when you realise the Mexican road-trip is still to come. Salles’ visually recreates an impressively detailed post-war America, but prioritises swivelling camera shots observing the Hudson roaring past along the road to another set of encounters rather than ever lingering in the car observing; so that he never conveys the hypnotic beauty of driving that drags these characters back for more.

Salles so fails to capture the spirit of the book that watching Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho might better serve cineastes unwilling to just read Kerouac’s original.

2/5

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