Friday, May 23, 2014

The Cartography of Grief: Inside Llewyn Davis's quiet epiphany

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Director: The Coen Brothers

Reviewed: 22 May 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

The Coen Brothers never fail to make interesting films, but Inside Llewyn Davis challenges and demands much out of its audience with less of their trademark madcap hijinks and more introspection and melancholy. Llewyn is a haunted, less than successful musician in 1961 New York City, facing frigid temperatures and the increasing coldness of friends who has alienated. Living off of the kindness of others, Llewyn wakes up on strange couches, hustles for gigs to make money, and contemplates leaving his art all together to join the Merchant Marines. He carries the cat of friends with him, unable to return it after it ran out as he was closing the door. He bums a ride to Chicago to see a legendary producer and make his pitch. He considers his art and what it means and what it would mean to give it all up.

The structure of Inside Llewyn Davis is a riddle of sorts, playing with time, and showing the same scene more than once, revealing its protagonist to be in some sort of cosmic loop. Appropriately, the film essentially demanded that I watch it twice right away, and I was happy to oblige. Llewyn seems trapped in an impossibly cold winter, wandering and searching, moving around but never getting anywhere--an apt metaphor for the creative process and the artist hellbent on making his or her art. When a producer announces to Llewyn, "I don't see a lot of money here," I feel that heartbreaking analysis could be commenting on the Coen Brothers' films as well. I am thankful that Fargo and No Country For Old Men probably brought smaller, less commercial films like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis to light. To have a career in the arts means some sort of acknowledgement of that statement and balancing commercialism with artistic integrity. The furious balancing involves compromising or failing.

Oscar Isaac gives a mournful quality to his performance as the self-destructive Llewyn, and it is important to see him as big-hearted and simultaneously capable of cruelty to those around him. Llewyn never reveals everything going on under his surface, but things bubble out at inopportune times, and in many cases, Isaac has to play him as unlikable. He is at his most likable are when Llewyn finds himself onstage singing, often shot in golden yellow light, moments of incandescence. These moments of brilliant performance and a soulful voice contrast with the trudging of the artist through the wet snow, stepping into a frozen puddle, ill-equipped for the vicious weather. Haven't we all been ill-prepared for moments in our lives?

The supporting performances are all first-rate: Carey Mulligan stands out as a bitter fellow musician; Justin Timberlake is effective as a cheery, commercial comrade; and John Goodman steals scenes as a jazz playing conversationalist. The film makes traveling cross country seem mind-numbing with the very sounds of the tires on the road drumming an incessant thumping on the soundtrack. The songs of the soundtrack key in on the emotional moments of the character and stand alone themselves as great fun, something the Coen Brothers have been doing for a long time. In a way, the film touches back to O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its musical interludes and love of the recording studio and process. How "Please, Mr. Kennedy" did not get nominated for Best Song is beyond me; I have been humming variations of it for over a week.

Without a lot of flash, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a portrait of the artist having to break free of his own self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps instead of being at odds with the cosmos, Llewyn is simply accountable for his own words and actions, receiving comeuppance for them in order for him to change. To watch Llewyn's epiphany, my hopeful reading of the film's last line (with a wonderful song accompanying it, swelling in the background) is to celebrate the shot of Llewyn closing the door more carefully, deflecting a past conflict back, and keeping what must stay on the other side where it belongs. I really loved this film, and it has given me much to think about.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Grandly Lighter Than Air: Wes Anderson's Hotel Movie.

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

Reviewed: 12 May 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's new film, most closely resembles its central chocolate delicacies, prepared by Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) lighter than air, exquisitely handcrafted, meticulously prepared in a striking pink box, and piled high in the air. However, the film's ethereal qualities are grounded quite frequently by wonderful cursing and intense violence. But, to get back to the desserts. These studied pieces of confectionary move the plot forward, connecting the machinations of lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and the debonair Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, shedding the skin of Voldemort with a refined glee), the head concierge at the eponymous hotel, an imposing castle of elevators, stairways, and cavernous dining rooms. Gustave H. runs the Budapest with an imperious precision; his marches through its hallways dictating impossibly precise orders at those around him suggest an older version of Max Fischer given the keys to a greater kingdom than the mere Grover Cleveland High School. In the republic of Zubrowka, a Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, aged extensively, hair piled high with a wig, and powdered like a cake) departs the embraces of the hotel and Gustave H. leading to a scandal involving a disputed will and an expensive painting, all set against the backdrop of a brewing war.

In a way, the film is more expansive than those of Anderson's past which have confined themselves to a single family in a single city or a series of groups on an island. Here, the trains crisscross Zubrowka, as well as gondolas, motorcycles, and sleds. He reveals an elaborate underground society of hotel concierges who will stop at nothing to help a person in need in addition to menacing groups of fascists awaiting you at the border, ready to check that your papers are in order. A triple-frame story opens us into this world, contrasting the hotel's rundown 1985 days with its 1932 glory. There is a slow-chase through a museum with a marvelously violent payoff, the severe mistreatment of a feline, a malevolent monster named Jopling (Willem Dafoe) who seems to grow fangs, and a glorious jailbreak and rescue of epic proportions. The canvas here is so wonderfully large that one is left pining for more time with even very minor characters.

I think Ralph Fiennes is a revelation here, not just because he does not have to play a heavy villain as he so often does (though as the new M in the Bond films, I guess we will be entering a new phase) but instead a flawed man with impeccable charm. With his "darlings" softly inserted at the end of conversations, Fiennes wonderfully plays up Gustave's theatricality as part of a bygone era, a desire to satisfy his guests and preach to his staff during their meals. Fiennes adapts his performance to each scene, holding the core of Gustave H. despite radical changes in station. The film struggles to fully show Gustave H.'s hold over young Zero, and their relationship while obviously the core of the story faltered a bit for me. I was left a bit cold by later developments, but perhaps I need another viewing of the film. The ending has an abrupt air to it, but it may be in keeping with the world that he's portraying. The checking of papers and harsh treatment of Zero foreshadows the atrocities of fascism in World War 2, making Gustave H.'s decision late in the film even more grand and noble.

I am adding this to the middle pile of Wes Anderson films, the ones that I am happy to return to viewing again and again. Although I cannot yet anoint The Grand Budapest Hotel as worthy to stand amongst Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and last year's wonderful Moonrise Kingdom, it stands closer to those films than his misfires. Anderson creates worlds that are fun to watch actors and actresses play around inside, worlds of intricately designed boxes of impossibly fine desserts that seem both familiar and completely unique at the same time, and I bet they enjoy the anarchic, highly structured fun. The sense of joy permeates his film, but as he harshly shows, all good things must end.