Capone's Art-House Round-Up with the Coens' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and Neil LaBute's SOME VELVET MORNING!!!
Published at: Dec. 20, 2013, 2:57 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS I've read a lot of writers ideas about what the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is "really" about, and the truth is, they're all right and they're all wrong. One of the many reasons the Coens are so good and a true sign of their talent is that with most of their recent works, they paint in such broad strokes that an audience member (or smarty-pants critic) will likely be able to find a piece of their own life to place gently atop some element of the film and find points where they line up. Nothing makes a person like a film more than seeing a bit of themselves in a character or situation. And while so much of what the Coens do is include very specific visual and written cues, they also leave room for a little piece of us in their tales. I almost feel like we owe them a debt of gratitude for doing this.
So who is Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac, a seriously talented singer in addition to being a soulful actor) and what is he doing to screw up his life and/or career as a struggling folk singer in the early 1960s? Covering about a week in Davis' life—possibly the last week of his career, or just another typical week—the film doesn't have much by way of plot. It instead is interested in showing what an odyssey any given week in his life might be like—trying to find places to play to earn money, looking for couches or spare bedrooms to crash on, jumping in on one-off recording sessions, and trying to re-ignite what little interest there might have been in him as a recording artist. We eventually discover that he enjoyed a modicum of success as part of duo, until his partner killed himself, leaving Llewyn rattled, but still able to produce a single solo album not long after that sold well into the double digits.
What INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has to say about talent versus fame is nothing new, but it's clear that timing is not working in Davis' favor. He's a gifted singer and guitar player, just beginning to make a name for himself as an interpreter of other people's songs at a time when the singer-songwriter was coming into fashion, thanks in large part to the poetry of Bob Dylan, whose career was just getting off the ground at the time. But the film isn't just about the music business of the early 1960s; it's about a journey that Llewyn makes in the span of a week that builds a more or less complete portrait of his life.
There are people that truly loathe him, like Jean (Carey Mulligan, Isaac's co-star in Drive), who slept with Davis a few weeks back and has found out she's pregnant. She's living with her singing partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), a sweetheart of a guy, who might also be the father, but Jean is so against the remotest possibility that the baby might be Llewyn's that she insists on getting an abortion. Jim also happens to be Llewyn's best friend, and he manages to pull him into a recording session of a protest song about then-President Kennedy's space program. It's the funniest sequence in the film, thanks in large part to Adam Driver's vocal punctuation throughout the track.
Llewyn also has his admirers, including a well-to-do, middle-aged married couple who let him stay with them from time to time. When Llewyn accidentally lets their cat out of the house, another interesting aspect to Llewyn's personality emerges. Forced to take possession of the cat until he can make it back to the apartment, we realize that Davis feels more of a connection to this animal than he does to just about any human being in the film. He is capable of caring about others, as long as they don't talk back, I suppose.
Most assuredly, Llewyn's journey sees him plays cafes in Greenwich Village, dinner parties (which ends quite badly), and even taking a couple of days to hitch a ride (with John Goodman and his brooding driver, played by Garrett Hedlund) to frigid Chicago to audition for a potential new manager (F. Murray Abraham). Perhaps the most haunting performance in the film happens when Llewyn plays a tune for his non-responsive father in an old-age home; his father's non-verbal reaction to the performance sums up Llewyn's life pretty succinctly.
In the end, it's the music that pulls you in. We hear from several actors performing their own material, as well as seasoned vets like Timberlake (who adjusts to the folky vibes quite nicely), Marcus Mumford, and Punch Brothers, all of whom work under the producing ear of Oscar-winner T-Bone Burnett, who also helmed the music of the Coens' O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
What impressed me so much about INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is how each scene flows seamlessly into the next, effortlessly, as if they were fated to do so. The atmosphere and visual style of the film is muted greys. Other than the orange cat, color doesn't exist in large quantities in this period piece. It feels otherworldly, while also maintaining a very grounded presence. The trademark dark humor that exists in nearly all of Coen Brothers movies is alive and well here. Goodman, Driver and a few others push things almost into pure comedy at points, but it still feels entirely appropriate for the material. I laughed especially hard at a couple of scenes in which Llewyn visits his sister and nephew at their home and swears up a storm, much to the young boy's delight and sister's disgust.
The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac's work: he's been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is easily one of the best films you'll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don't try—just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.
SOME VELVET MORNING There have been some truly great films about the changing trends in relationships in 2013—from the cutting back-and-forth between a married couple in Richard Linklater's BEFORE MIDNIGHT to a man falling in love with disembodied voice in his computer that is paying more attention to him than his wife ever did in Spike Jonze's HER (out next week). But none of these films from writer-directors was made by notorious playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, THE SHAPE OF THINGS), a man who has traditionally made nasty little movies about the ways men and women get along horribly, to the point where they often end up ruining each other in small ways. His latest piece is something a little different, but no less disturbing at times.
SOME VELVET MORNING is story with only two characters, although it's based on an original LaBute screenplay (and not a play) about a woman named Velvet (Alice Eve, in by far the best performance she's ever given) and Fred (Stanley Tucci, deciding to act once again and not just drop in to play a goofy character for a couple of scenes in a big movie). Fred shows up on Velvet's doorstep unannounced with luggage in hand and the presumption that she'll let him stay there for a time after having just left his wife to be with this stunning, much younger woman. Initially and hesitantly, she seems okay with the idea, but we never really buy it. And what happens from that point on is a game of revealing details one at a time until we have something resembling a clearer picture of what they once were to each other and exactly what their current relationship consists of.
We are reminded with this film that LaBute is a master storyteller when he wants to be, and he's wonderfully adept at giving us conversational dialogue that goes from small talk to vicious name calling in a matter of seconds. Velvet's body language speak volumes, even when her words seem nothing more than conversational. She lives in a tall, thin building with narrow hallways and staircases, and the claustrophobia sets in early as Fred follows her from room to room talking about her job and her friends (especially her male friends). Most of the time we can't tell if Fred is actually jealous or wants Velvet to think he is because maybe she'll be flattered by it. But the tension and creepy vibe escalates ever so slowly to the point where anytime Fred touches Velvet, even casually, your skin crawls until he breaks contact.
This is the zone in which LaBute thrives, and things build to a final 10 minutes or so that you almost need to watch twice to even believe what you've just witnessed. Again, this is the type of story that LaBute does so well. He sets up a scenario, lets us get comfortable in it so that we think we know what's going on, and then he lobs a grenade in the middle of everything and dares us to try and pick up the pieces. But the difference with SOME VELVET MORNING is that the grenade is launched at the audience, which is not to say that the characters escape unscathed. This is a film that almost demands you watch it at least twice to catch all of the subtleties and perfect examples of misdirection.
I'm so certain that about 50 percent of the people who see this movie are going to be angered by it, but that doesn't ultimately mean they won't appreciate the storytelling going on. Eve and Tucci dance around and with each other like pros—at times they are stepping on each other's toes, sure, but eventually they get back in the swing.
SOME VELVET MORNING speaks to one variety of the many ways that men and women have learned to appropriate each other as physical beings, and it's not always pretty, and it will likely make you very uncomfortable at some point. But stick with it, because the payoff is something special that will leave you forgetting to breathe momentarily, as many great films do. See it and ask yourself if this type of relationship is any more or less viable or acceptable than dating or marriage. You may be shocked at your answer.