Thursday, January 2, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis and Philomena

Over the first 10 days of January, I am planning on seeing many of the films I have yet to see from the awards season, and while some I will be unable to due to not being in theaters anymore, 

Inside Llewyn Davis

I went into Inside Llewyn Davis with certain expectations. One: that I would at least enjoy it because I think the Coen Bros. (Joel and Ethan) are easily the best director/directorial duo alive. Two: that the humor would be odd and dry and therefore great. Three: that the performances would be great.

All of these things were true. The Coens see the world in a different way than anybody else, and all of the quirky comedy in their films comes from how their characters talk to each other. The scenes are written expectedly well, but their style does not work brilliantly in this film’s format, a character study. The film, never seems to go anywhere, and while that’s sort of the point, given the personality of the main character, it does not make for incredibly compelling viewing as a story.
That being said, the rest of the film elevates the slightly above average narrative to great heights. The Coens’ editing (as Roderick Jaynes, of course) is superb as always, the production design is terrific with a brilliant color-scheme. Perhaps most importantly, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes you forget that Roger Deakings didn’t shoot it.

This is a film of uncommon wit and intermittently devastating melancholy. It is a film of characters, and the performances that embody these characters are uniformly great. All of the smaller roles are ably handled, but three stand out. Oscar Isaac has overtaken Chiwetel Ejiofor as my favorite lead performance of the year, giving a performance making his unlikeable character so pathetic that the audience cannot help but sympathize with him. He is a character only interested in himself, and while this normally makes a character unlikeable, his inability to make choices suitable to his own ends, and the way Isaac portrays his numerous shortcomings are simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating.

Carey Mulligan, who gave my favorite female lead performance of 2009 in An Education, gives her best performance since in a short, potentially clichéd role as Jean. In what essentially amounts to 10-or-so minutes of screentime, she is fiery, downtrodden, and completely electric. She won’t receive an Oscar nomination, but she definitely deserves one.

Lastly, John Goodman gives an immensely fun, short performance as jazz musician Roland Turner. While he is helped by his great, biting lines, his performance is quite entertaining and only left me wanting more, though I don’t think he deserves an Oscar nomination (which he won’t get). His performance does give credence to the mantra that Goodman’s only great roles are in Coen Bros’ movies.

The music is terrific and is, aside from Isaac, my favorite part of the film. All of the songs, aside from “Please Mr. Kennedy”, are traditional folk songs performed live by the cast, and they are, without exception, brilliantly chosen and passionately performed. Oscar Isaac’s performances of “The Death of Queen Jane”, “Fare Thee Well”, “and “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” are gorgeous and immensely powerful. “Please Mr. Kennedy” is a hysterical song by Ed Rush, George Cromarty, T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, and the Coens, and performed by Timberlake, Isaac, and Adam Driver. I am ashamed for the Academy, which will, in all likelihood, fail to recognize its comedic greatness and juxtapositions of musical styles when nominations are announced.

This film has grown on me since I watched it yesterday, and while I still do not think it is anywhere near as good as Fargo or No Country for Old Men, I do think it is worthy of a Best Picture nomination. I would watch it again, something I could not say for sure yesterday, if only to be entertained by the Coens’ way with words and Isaac’s show-stopping performance.


Update: I have somewhat changed my opinion on the film, hence the now A-level rating. It is not the Coens' best work, but it's better than I originally gave it credit for. It's a melancholy movie with a melancholy ending, so I initially felt like it went nowhere in the end, which I wasn't okay with. Its initial rating of 87 was so high because the other aspects of the film, especially Oscar Isaac's lead performance, are all so incredibly strong. Thinking back, I still don't like the circular nature of the film's character study, but I appreciate it more than I originally did, therefore I am giving it back 3 of the points I originally deducted from its score.

Update #2: I keep thinking about this film and how much I enjoyed it, so now it's a 93.

My second film of the break was Philomena. The film, which chronicles the journey of a reporter who left the BBC only to be sacked from his job as a government press secretary and 60-something Irish woman as they search for the son taken from her while she lived in a convent, is, I think, quite an achievement.

No, none of the production qualities, be they cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s score, editing, or production design itself particularly groundbreaking. Neither is Judi Dench’s performance as the titular Philomena Lee, for which she will almost assuredly receive her 7th Oscar nomination. Sure, she is very good, but Dench could do this in her sleep, and probably do it better than she does here. She could have done so much with this part, but instead it almost seems like she’s just going through the motions. That’s not to say she isn’t good, but just nowhere near what I’ve come to expect from this particular Dame.

Stephen Frears’ direction, too, is less than spectacular. It’s certainly far from bad, but, just as in virtually every other major film he’s directed, there’s one thing keeping his direction from being great. This time, it’s the flashbacks in the film’s first act. For a film as heartwarming and funny and heartwrenching as this, the flashbacks are too standard, too “I want to make you cry.” But how is “heartwrenching” incompatible with “I want to make you cry”? Frears’ direction, unfortunately, makes it so. The flashback scenes, as written, are painful enough, but Frears felt the need to add a little extra melancholy, and it only diminishes from the scenes.

So what makes this movie so completely watchable, immensely likeable and utterly satisfying? Steve Coogan. Coogan’s complete body of work on this film is dynamite. His script, co-written with Jeff Pope, is brilliant. It instills a simultaneous sense of melancholy and of happiness and playfulness. All of its jokes are spot-on and well-delivered. Its sense of narrative is effortless, its honesty refreshing. The ending walks the tight-rope of sentimentality extremely well.

This composes only half of Coogan’s involvement, however. His acting as Martin Sixsmith is quite good and relatively unsung this awards season, probably because there are so many other performances in bigger films getting all the buzz. He is both charming and off-putting in an effortless fashion that makes him completely human. His transformation from a man worried only about his public reputation and Russian history to one who truly cares about a human interest story is very well handled.

I want to dispel the one major criticism of the film I have heard, which is that the film is anti-Catholic. The film is, by no means anti-Catholic. If anything, the film shows a disdain for the inability of some churchgoers to see the opposite side of the religious argument. Coogan’s atheist is completely incapable, or rather unwilling, to consider faith, and Sister Hildegarde is unwilling to even consider that God would give love instead of punishment to all of the mothers who underwent teenage pregnancies. In the end, the only character who comes out a winner is Dench’s Philomena, the true, faithful Catholic, whose level of faith is equaled only by her love for everybody around her.

Overall, this is a heartwarming film that has a few problems, but whose heart and charm outlast anything bad about it.


No comments:

Post a Comment