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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw Inside Llewyn Davis in a sold out matinée in Union Square, NYC
last weekend. The city was cold and dreary, much like the 1960s
Manhattan depicted in this film. I sat with my friend after the movie
and basically railed against the film for the first ten minutes before
slowly admitting that my criticisms were obviously the intended result
and that the Coen Brothers have once again made a great movie that is
simply not easy to digest and certainly not fun to digest.
I'll lead with the greatness. The underlying takeaway of this film is that the actual creation of music - the sound, the beauty and the lyrical story - can embody some of the best attributes about humanity and yet, the creator of such music can nonetheless lack all such attributes and essentially be as ugly a person as his music is beautiful. That is the takeaway, and the Coen Bros intentionally force this upon the viewer. The folk songs song by Lleywn serve as calming beautiful interludes and as stark contrasts to the plot driven by a character who is simply put, a terrible human being stuck in an extremely frustrating, self-made vacuum of an existence.
I assume that most people, like me, gravitate toward wanting to root for the struggling artist. There is a nobility in pursuing your dreams when such dreams consist of the pursuit of an art form. Here, folk music is put on a pedestal and LLewyn's pursuit of it is from the outset, something the audience implicitly will support. In the course of 90 minutes, the Coen Bros force you to question this support, hate the lead character and eventually cheer when he gets punched in the face.
The problem is simple. I did not want any more of LLewyn Davis after 90 minutes. I did not want to hear his music anymore because the lyrics he sung were fraudulent, the beauty of his playing, a guise. And due to his self-made failings throughout the film, I no longer cared where his story went. The Coen Bros could have taken the plot line in any number of ways to give the viewer some foothold to hope that Llewyn may end up on the right track one day. They do not give you that foothold, and for that reason, I was pretty ready for this movie to end when it did. This is admittedly a criticism, but more an observation. I certainly do not need films to end with rainbows and hearts, but this script really forces you to watch a man stuck in a static world where his own actions cause him to go nowhere, and that is a frustrating world to inhabit for 90 minutes.
The best parts of the film are not the Manhattan scenes, but the drive LLewyn takes to Chicago. The Coen Bros have used the theme of "driving at night" time and time again to make some great scenes, usually emotionally charged personal voyages. This is no different. Their cinematography and over all character driven story telling shines when their lead characters hit the road. The bit characters are fun and unusual in the Coen Bro's way, but do little to ease the 90 minutes of crass, immature, self-defeating, out-of-touch and eventually just pathetic life movements from Lleywn's character
For Coen Brother fans, its worth the journey; for general movie fans, be warned, as this is an interesting film, but arguably not an enjoyable one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers, then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life's obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character's own poor judgment. Coen Brother stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option ... the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out seems to think life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can't get a break). The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It's not until this scene is repeated again at the film's end do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out ... even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape. The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen's were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled "The Mayor of MacDougal Street". So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn's story is pure Coen fiction. That means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture ... such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes. We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn's personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film's best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is "King Midas' idiot brother". Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman's jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he's not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn's Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago's Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan, Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn's audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie ("The Death of Queen Jane"), but it's clearly the wrong song for the moment. Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that's necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the novelty song "Please Mr Kennedy". Why Isaac's performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It's possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Some thought and consideration is required. If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it's fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate, well-executed, and honest slice of
life. It features a humanistic, heartfelt performance by Oscar Isaac as
the titular folk singer, arresting cinematography, and a sharp,
tight-fisted script by the Coen brothers, who also directed.
It's Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when folk music was either coming into its own or ready to be usurped by a more mainstream genre. Llewyn has no home, drifting from gig to gig and crashing on couch after couch as a matter of design; is vagrancy is his life's plan. Llewyn is at turns a noble soul who exists for the sake of making the music he wants to make and a resentful twerp who mooches off friends just to sustain his unsustainable lifestyle.
The movie is only somewhat linear, with closing scenes mirroring opening scenes, and it is told entirely from Llewyn's point of view. The Coen brothers masterfully show us not only Llewyn's perspective but also an outside perspective; this allows us to feel both empathy and loathing toward him.
Llewyn is nothing if not complex. The movie does a terrific job of avoiding the usual clichés, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break, or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. It's not that Llewyn is constantly sneering at everyone, holding his poverty up as both a shield and a trophy, it's that he is so multilayered that when he does a kind act or offers some praise or thanks, we don't feel that his doing so is in any way out of character. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his center a realist, albeit a prideful one.
During his travels and travails, Llewyn encounters people ranging from the genuine (his singing friends Jim and Jean, played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to the absurd (a rotund, blustery John Goodman). Oh, and a cat that travels with Llewyn - at least until he can get him or her back to the owner. The encounters with the genuine folks feel just as normal as if you or I encountered them; those with the more absurd of the lot feel perfectly surreal, and when they do end one almost wonders if we've all imagined the encounters through Llewyn himself.
The music is beautiful and moving. Isaac himself performs Llewyn's songs, with a sweet, vulnerable voice that offers a touch of soul to Llewyn's otherwise-bleak surroundings. When Llewyn is really on, you can feel his pain leap right off the screen into your brain; when he appears to be going through the motions and not singing from his heart, you can feel the lack of depth that his intended audience also feels. Isaac is just flat-out terrific.
Ultimately, it is Isaac and the music that push this film into the territory of great cinema. The story itself is stark, moody, unyielding - just like a New York City winter, really. And the movie, like Llewyn's own life, appears to have no point - except to illustrate just how pointless Llewyn is making his life, through his stubborn marriage to his craft and a desire to stay uprooted
Saw the prescreening at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI with
average expectations, this is my reaction:
This film is an experience, but not for any sort of superficial special effects, action or CGI. It's an experience in which you will feel fear, joy, hate, hope, sorrow and contempt all within an hour and 45 minutes that feels more like 15 minutes. We are sidelined, watching a short snippet of Llewyn's seemingly dismal life, drudge on by, yet we are drawn. We connect with Lleywn's anger and struggles, as if we too are burdened by his failures and challenges. But amongst the bad, there are moments of cheer, and laughter and peace reminding us that good still exists. What dominates is power, balanced by music, money and pride, yet this movie is better served as a reminder that life is an experience, and individualistic. We are reminded that more often than not, things do not fall into place and luck is rarely on our side. But no matter how many times people fail you, one should never fail, before one's self. This movie is an experience, it indirectly breaths life into each of our souls, and should appeal to anyone in touch with the most crucial human emotions: compassion and empathy. Hold on tight, because it is one experience that will remain with you long after the credits are through. Perfectly casted, perfectly scripted, perfectly filmed; perfectly entertaining.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's amazing how dazzled one can be by so very little these days.
There's very little here--a struggling unpleasant man who sings his
heart out about standard "folk" catastrophes but can't take care of
himself as he goes about damaging others, and animals as well. He's
your 50's college roommate who cooks on a hot plate and sings about
historic heroic starvations. The in- and-out mythic references are
unfocused and a game for undergraduates. When the Coens go flat it's
not even E flat. We're forced to watch this guy's face for an hour or
so without a clue to his demons; he's just a jerk, a driven jerk but a
Best part is the recreation of the early 60's in cars, atmospheres, but then John Goodman shows up from "Where art thou?" and spoils the realistic angst. Sorry, but the early folk scene wasn't this creepy and Bob Dylan didn't rescue it from oblivion or creepiness. Without a political or sexual agenda (it got you chicks) it did flounder, but it needed an audience for shifting values and social awareness. One's suffering couldn't just be for one's art, but had to have a social dimension that this guy can't see. A genius before his time? Hardly--a guy who can't take care of himself, or his friends or family or lovers--anything but "folk." The times they were a changin', but this guy's a talented pathetic scrounge and lacks the connections to others and society that might propel him to sing for the changing times.
This might be the ethos of the Coens and their films themselves--within society but not of it. Their characters struggle with their messy quirky lives but we see them as curiosities rather than representatives of anything important. There's a certain clown show aspect to their films, which creates their charm and fun but little else.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a hard film to quantify. It is very much a Coen
Brothers movie, and it is very much its own thing. I did not know the
history of the story. I did not know the story behind the Gaslight club
in New York nor did I know of the famous figure who started at the bar
back in 1961 when the film takes place. I found out after the film was
over. However, not knowing that, I still thought this was an incredible
There are oddly poetic scenes in the film. There is a scene where the main character Llewyn Davis hits a cat with his car. As he watches the cat limp away into the darkness injured, I felt that it was an interesting image that seemed to mirror Llewyn's life in the film. Although I was aware of the poetic aspect of the film, I did not feel that they were forced moments. In interviews the Coen Brothers always seem to play dumb. In an interview for this film the Coen Brothers talked about the cat in the movie, and how they didn't know what to do with the story, so they threw in a cat. Anybody who has seen a Coen Brothers movie can appreciate that this is far from the truth. Every moment and image seems to be very specifically placed, and that was the case for this movie as well.
You can't judge this movie the same way you would judge every other film this year. It's almost as if the Coen Brothers have their own language that they are speaking, that the audience does not fully understand. We catch some things, and even with those few moments, I was mesmerized. Sometimes I really notice their style like in their film A Serious Man, and I find myself confused and bored, but this film felt very true to me. I sympathized with the main character and his struggles, perhaps because I consider myself a creative person as well, so I know how hard it is. At one point Llewyn says, "I'm just so f-ing tired," this line says a lot more than just I want to sleep. It is something we can all relate to, a feeling of just wanting to give up, and in this way, the story is a universal one, but then again it's the Coen Brothers, so automatically I know some people might not like it, but I loved it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As I walked out of the theater where my friend and I had just paid $11
each to see this film, I thought to myself, "Well, maybe next time
they'll actually make a movie." Because I would not really consider
this a movie. It is a half-baked, moody character sketch of an
unbelievable character. As another reviewer pointed out, Llewyn Davis
is quite good looking and capable of performing passionately. To think
that not one of the women in the clubs he plays would offer him a place
to sleep for the night is absurd. That is only one example of how the
film favors contrivance over believability. John Goodman's character is
another big one.
The movie is a pointless waste of time, a dreary faux-odyssey about a character who is such an awful, self-centered person that you could not possibly care what happens to him. But don't worry, because nothing happens to him. The film ends as it begins, with him getting beaten up for being a selfish jerk. As many have pointed out, this movie does not capture the heady, vibrant spirit of the early 60s folk scene in NYC. If you want that, read Bob Dylan's wonderful Chronicles, Vol. I.
I've enjoyed many of the Coen Brothers films, but they just phoned this one in, I guess. Or they've become so enamored with their own Hollywood brilliance that they can't tell good from bad. And Hollywood is so shallow and moronic that I would not be surprised if this gets nominated for "Best Film." Yeah, right.
I enjoy a lot of folk music, from early Dylan to Nick Drake and many others, but the songs in this film were long and boring and unmemorable. Huge amounts of the film are devoted to Llewyn singing ENTIRE SONGS (like five or six minute long songs) that are in no way remarkable. I guess that's the point, since he's supposed to be failure. Instead of devoting film time to character or plot development, to comedy or entertainment, we are supposed to be entranced somehow by the emotion of this fake music. I guess it worked magic on professional film critics. The "Please Mr. Kennedy" novelty song was beyond stupid. And when Davis abandoned the cat in the car with the passed out, possibly even dead, Goodman character, I thought, "Screw this guy! I hate him. I hope he gets beaten up again. I'll beat him up."
As a work of art, which it clearly aspires to be, this movie lacks intricacy, depth, or insight. The Coens already covered this material with Barton Fink, which I've always enjoyed, but BF was a much more satisfying and entertaining film. I'd rather go see a mindless Star Trek movie than something this pretentious and intentionally pointless. I don't want to see it again, not even for a buck at Redbox. This is the worst Coen Bros movie I've seen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I read the other reviews here and am at a loss for words. When it ended, my wife turned to me and said it was awful. I told her it was very, very dull. A stranger in front of us also hated the film. There was a blow-up of a review of the movie in the lobby, and about twenty or thirty audience members were clustered in front of it, no doubt trying to reconcile the review with the cinematic lobotomy we had just endured. The only things I liked about the movie were seeing Dad's old 1961 Chrysler Newport on the street, and F. Murray Abraham. I respect all other reviewers' opinions, but this is mine. And yes, I've seen other Coen brothers films and liked them.
At some point of this the folk singer we've been following is stranded
at night by the side of the road in a car with possibly a dead man and
a cat, another man has just been arrested by police for not much of a
reason. He gets out to hitch a ride and there's only a cold,
indifferent night with strangers in their cars just going about.
This is the worldview the Coens have been prodding, sometimes for a laugh, sometimes not. I can't fault them, it does seem to be inexplicably cold out there some nights. They're thinkers first of all, intellectuals, so it stings them more so they try to think up ways of mocking that thinker who is stung by the cold to amuse themselves and pass the night.
So this is what they give us here. A joyless man for no particular reason, who plays decent music that people enjoy or not for no particular reason, who the universe has turned against. The Coens don't pretend to have any particular answer either of why this is, why the misery. It might have something to do with having lost a friend, something to do with not having learned to be simply grateful for a small thing. It might have something to do with something he did, the initial beating up in the alley is there to insert this. Sometimes it's just something that happens as random as a cat deciding to step out of the door and the door closing before you can put it back in. Most of the time it all kind of snowballs together.
It's a noir device (the beating - cat) bundling guilt with chance so we'll end up with a clueless schmuck whose own contribution to the nightmare is inextricable from the mechanics of the world. The Coens have mastered noir so they trot it here with ease: the more this anti-Dude fails to ease into life the more noir anomaly appears around him.
Of course the whole point is that it's not such a bad setup; people let him crash in their apartment, a friend finds him a paying gig, somehow he ends up on a car to Chicago where he's offered a job. It's not great either, but somewhere in there is a pretty decent life it could all amount to, provided he settles for less than his dream. (This means here a dream the self is attached to). I saw this after a documentary on backup singers, all of them profoundly troubled for having settled for less, all of them nonetheless happy to be able to do their music.
Still, 'The incredible journey', seen on the Disney poster, may in the end amount to no more than an instinctive drive through miles of wilderness. The Coens are cold here even for their standards. I wouldn't be surprised to find it was Ethan, the more introverted of the two, ruminating on a meaningless art without his partner.
Is there a way out in the end? Here's the trickiest part, especially for an intelligent mind. You can't just kid yourself with any other happiness like Hollywood has done since Chaplin. You know it has to be invented to some degree, the point of going on, yet truthful. Nothing here. More music, a reflection. It's the emptiest part of the film as if they didn't know themselves what to construct to put him back on stage. Visually transcending was never their forte anyway. They merely end up explaining the wonderful noir ambiguity of that first beating.
Still they are some of the most dependable craftsmen we have and in the broader Coen cosmos this sketches its own space.
There have been movies made about musicians, both real and imagined,
from End of the Century through I'm Not There, taking in The Future is
Unwritten and A Mighty Wind. We've had almost every conceivable
approach, from straight-up documentary through imagined version of
events as well as completely invented bands, singers, songs, and
concerts. Yet, I don't think that anyone has ever managed to do what
the Coen Brothers have produced with this tragic, comedic, touching
Which is to essentially transport you into the grooves of an LP, Inside Llewyn Davies, and bring you a beautifully realised portrayal of the eponymous hero as he trudges his weary way through the greys and greens of Greenwich Village in a cold New York. And it is so reminiscent of the experience of listening to your favourite vinyl album from track one, side one to the final track of side two, whilst curling up on the couch with a cat in your lap, listening to a selection of melodic, melancholic, traditional, and new folk music.
The music binds this movie together and Oscar Issac inhabits the title role in a world-weary way that aches with ennui and longs for something never expressed. We follow his tramping travails through a range of vignettes that build subtly towards creating a quite compelling picture of the man behind the music. He sometimes does what we expect and at other junctures, veers off in a mad new direction. There is little explanation for any of the decisions that he does, or doesn't, take. He's searching without any clear idea of the quest.
Along the way, we meet a wonderfully diverse bunch of supporting characters, from the biting Jean, acerbic tongue and acid looks, through the snoring bully Roland Turner and his valet Johnny Five, as well as Mitch and Lilian, the Upper West posh couple, but especially Ulysses, our hero's apparent companion over the week (or was s/he?). They all offer opportunities to understand Davies' psyche slightly more, albeit admitting that not even he appears to be fully cognisant himself.
It's a lovely looking film, beautifully shot and much more enjoyable that I would have believed possible from watching the trailer previously. T Bone Burnett has done a sterling job on the soundtrack, it's so affecting and the way that the songs are all allowed to play out saw the audience in the cinema in which I saw this mainly remaining seated through the end credits as well. Which brings me back to the vinyl album sensation. You don't pick up the needle when your favorite record is playing the final track, because you want to get on with something else instead. No. You let it run right to the end of the groove and then your heart fills with an equal mixture of pleasure and joy, sorrow and sighs, as the last bars fade to quiet and all that's gone before becomes a memory that's so strong and so addictive that you want to turn it over and put the needle back into the groove all over again.
This movie is precisely like that sensation and I loved it, from first frame to last. A quiet understated tragi-comedy, dark in places, and shadowy in others, but with a humanity and a compassion that you cannot avert our gaze from. Hell, it's even got a coda of a scene to be dealing with, which at the end takes your mind back to the start of the production and forces one to reexamine what has just passed before your eyes. Recommended.
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