Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

The landscape of American film has changed considerably in the 30 years since Joel and Ethan Coen announced themselves with their blackly comic neo-noir debut Blood Simple.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melacholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

Once dismissively bracketed as ‘arthouse’, the Coens are among a handful of gifted filmmakers to have transformed the cinematic panorama without compromising their unique sensibility; to the extent their bleakly violent 2007 masterpiece No Country For Old Men won Best Film and Best Director Oscars and made a ton of money at the box office to boot.

With this, their 16th film, the Coens almost out-Coen themselves with a Russian doll of a movie that’s as enigmatic as it is engrossing.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

The roster of seemingly cursed characters with a leaning towards self-destruction is a growing one in the Coens’ filmography and Llewyn Davis’ tractionless folk musician is right up there with Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Ed Crane Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is, like the songs he plays, “never new and never gets old” and spends his days drifting around New York’s early-60s Greenwich Village playing the odd gig and relying on the generosity of friends for a place to lay his head. You get the sense things have been this way since his former musical partner Mike committed suicide a few years earlier, while his only solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, has fallen through the critical and commercial cracks.

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

His inertia has left him bitter, despite (or because of) it being almost entirely his own fault. Llewyn simply can’t fathom how or why the folk-by-numbers tunes of the innocuous Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) “connect with people” and can’t hide his derision when playing session guitar on the inane folk-pop pap Please Mr Kennedy (the film’s standout hilarious scene) written by his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Jim and Llewyn’s ex-flame, the perennially angry Jean (Carey Mulligan), are also starting to make waves on the folk scene as a duet – another sign that he’s being left behind.

Opportunities present themselves, but Llewyn has a compulsion to snatch defeat from the jaws of something more prosperous. An audition for respected Chicago producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) comes to naught when, instead of playing something catchy, Llewyn instead chooses the sombre ballad The Death Of Queen Jane. Grossman’s pithy summation “I don’t see a lot of money here” firstly reminds us why it’s called the music business, and secondly underscores the fact Llewyn’s always going to be a square box trying to fit in a round hole.

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens’ very best films open themselves up to multiple interpretations and Inside Llewyn Davis is no different. For me, the oppressive sense of death hangs over the film like a shroud, to the extent that it could be argued the world we see Llewyn wandering around is some kind of purgatory.

Bruno Delbonnel’s chilly cinematography lends the film a ghostly pallor, while the eerie road trip Llewyn takes with beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and obnoxious Dr John-alike jazz muso Roland Turner (the one and only John Goodman) from New York to Chicago is like something out of a supernatural nightmare, with ominous-sounding vehicles screeching past their car.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can't seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can’t seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Furthermore, the cat(s) that Llewyn cannot seem to escape from have long been regarded as a symbol of death, while the fact one of the cats is called Ulysses could be a reference to Tennyson’s celebrated poem of the same name (rather than James Joyce’s novel) about a man with the spectre of death hanging over him.

The songs Llewyn performs are also soaked in morbidity, from The Death Of Queen Jane, to Hang Me Oh Hang Me (“wouldn’t mind the hangin… but the layin in the grave so long”), while the film’s elliptical structure could be seen as purgatorial. Mind you, it just as easily be about a poor schmuck living day-to-day and who gets saddled with a cat. That’s the Coens for you.

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Isaac gives a superlative performance as the downtrodden Llewyn, a curious figure who’s his own worst enemy but somehow illicits our sympathy. There’s something both maddening and admirable about his bloody-mindedness.

The Coens have been accused in the past of being unsympathetic towards their characters and it’s a charge that’s been levelled at Llewyn Davis. This is to miss the point, however. Llewyn is flawed, of that there is no doubt, but Isaac injects the character with real pathos.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens.

Review – Argo

It’s frankly remarkable Argo has taken this long to reach the big screen – a film with a you-just-couldn’t-make-it-up storyline in which Hollywood comes out smelling of roses.

More than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Islamist protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.

Argo is the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made these days

The story of their long ordeal has been well documented. What isn’t as well-known is the plight of six Americans who made it out of the country as a result of an extraordinary CIA plot led by operative Tony Mendez in which an elaborate cover story was hatched to pass the group off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo.

It wasn’t until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA files that the story officially came to light and only now do we have the movie ‘based’ on Mendez’s historical account courtesy of actor/director Ben Affleck.

Much like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Argo adopts the look and feel of such classic 1970s nail-biters as Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), right down to the old Warner Bros logo at the front end of the movie and the use of old film stock to provide a suitably grainy look. Affleck also mixes things up with fast zooms, long lens shots and close-ups to crank up the tension.

The use of handheld cameras during the scenes in Iran give the action a confused, panicked quality that is effectively handled and works as a parallel to the comical exchanges between Mendez (Affleck), make-up artist and CIA contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they work against the clock to put flesh on Argo‘s bones.

This is most powerfully demonstrated during the scene when a speech given by a spokeswoman for the militants outlining to the world’s media their political position is intercut with a script reading of Argo featuring actors in ridiculous costumes.

CIA agent hatches a so-crazy-it=might-just-work scheme to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck's Argo

CIA agent Tony Mendez endeavours to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck’s Argo

In lesser hands you would have heard someone dramatically declare “it’s crazy, but it might … just … work”. However, Affleck has matured as a director since his admirable 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone and shown he can helm claustrophobic action in his follow-up The Town (2010).

Affleck makes emphatically clear the life or death stakes facing the group and the paranoia and queasiness that fear can exert. You get a very real sense that one false step by any of them will mean the game’s up for all.

That being said, the wheels begin to fall off somewhat in the film’s final third. Lest we forget, this is a Hollywood picture, and as the embassy staff and Mendez make their tortuous way through Tehran Airport it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being¬†deceived just as much as the security guards.

"It's so crazy it might just work". CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

“It’s so crazy it might just work”. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

That’s not to say Affleck doesn’t handle the group’s final escape well – it’s a masterful, pulse-quickening action sequence that pushes all the right buttons. But the contrivances of the plot (plane tickets being confirmed with seconds to spare and other moments I won’t spoil) are hard to swallow (in fact they’re plain inaccurate) and bring to mind the over-the-top denouement to the otherwise enjoyable The Last King of Scotland (2006).

With Iran having rarely been out of the news for the past few years, Argo‘s politics are inevitably going to be put under the spotlight. Affleck doesn’t let himself down here. While we’re under no illusion who the heroes of this tale are, from the opening sequence (filmed as a movie storyboard) where we get a short history lesson on the brutality of the Shah’s rule and the subsequent revolution that saw the birth of an Islamic republic, we are asked to¬† understand the anger of the Iranian people and why the embassy was stormed. This is no Black Hawk Down (2001) with an implacable, faceless and one-dimensional enemy.

While Affleck won’t win any prizes for historical accuracy (what Hollywood film does?), Argo nevertheless stands on its feet as the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made in Tinseltown these days.