Sunday, January 19, 2014


 Inside Llewyn Davis  reminded me of other films by the Coen brothers. In this tale of an early 1960s folk singer who seems to hit one snag after another in trying to kick-start his failing career, I could see a bit of Barton Fink, a bit of The Big Lebowski, and even a bit of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Coens borrowed some ingredients from their earlier movies - a man  goes on a journey, meets some odd people along the way, is stymied by authority figures, and finds that nothing is as what it seems to be  - and jammed them into the Greenwich Village folk scene, just before the arrival of Bob Dylan. It works, more or less. The Coens are good filmmakers, and even when not at their best, they're entertaining and intriguing. What's different here is that the Coens seem fatigued. There's no joy here, the laughs are few, and the drama is nil. Davis, played with  simmering anger by  Oscar Isaac, may be the most hapless character they've ever created.

Davis' singing partner committed suicide. Davis has since embarked on a solo career, but hasn't had any luck. He's sleeping on friends' couches, and performing at open mike nights where the audience passes the basket around to collect money for him. He's tiring of the artist's life, but when his friends and family suggest he try something different, he turns hostile. He's alienating the people closest to him, and has started drinking and abusing other performers. The film opens with him singing, and then getting his ass kicked in an alley behind a coffee house. He'd heckled someone onstage the night before, and a mysterious audience member teaches him a rather violent lesson. Davis doesn't seem to mind getting beat up, though. His life has turned to such shit that a back alley beating is normal.

There are several subplots that don't really lead anywhere. Among them: Davis spends much of the film trying to find a friend's cat who has escaped; he learns that a woman he slept with (the girlfriend of one of his buddies) is pregnant; he helps arrange for her abortion; he meets a doltish army private who is not only a folk singer, but is on the verge of stardom; and in one of the movie's best scenes, Davis takes part in recording a novelty song about astronauts.  

Halfway through the film Davis accepts an officer to help drive a jazz musician (John Goodman) to Chicago. This fellow annoys Davis with a lot of unfunny banter, turns out to be a junkie, and nearly dies in a public toilet somewhere between New York and Illinois. But what the hell, while he's in the area, Davis decides to audition for a top folk promoter played by F. Murray Abraham. After Davis pours his heart out in a song, the promoter merely shrugs and says, "I don't see a lot of money here."

Like all Coen productions, Inside Llewyn Davis has a beautiful look to it. The cinematography by  Bruno Delbonnel  has a muted, dreamy look, perfect for  New York's  interminable winter bluster, and the interior of the Gaslight Cafe where Davis performs has the smoky blue tint we recall from the covers of old folk or jazz albums, or from photo spreads in LIFE and LOOK magazines. The atmosphere seems to fit Davis' mood - as his career lurches further out of control, the weather seems to grow colder and bleaker, the highways darker and more menacing. 

I wonder if Davis represents the Coens at this time in their career. Davis was once part of a duo; he can't find success as a solo. Is this something from one or the other Coen's psyche, hiccuping forth as a character? Davis is constantly angry, not wanting to sing when asked, hating the thought of harmonizing with others. Singing is not easy, he says, it's not a parlor trick. Later, he has a meltdown at a folk club and screams that he hates folk music. He can't understand why other lesser acts are getting over while he stumbles. I can't help but think the Coens are feeling some of this themselves, as they try to make their small, offbeat movies in an era of superheroes and screenplays cribbed from video games. 

Of course, the Coens aren't hurting. They've had an incredible career, and are responsible for some of the best movies of the past 25 years. Still, the most touching scene in Inside Llewyn Davis is when Davis finally admits that it's over, that he's not going to get anywhere. "I'm tired," he says, and the weight of the words are devastating. It's so rare in an American movie when someone outright quits. Soon, he finds his way back to the cafe, and is thrown out again. The end of the film is exactly like the beginning. He's living life in a nightmarish loop. Are the Coens talking about the plight of struggling artists? All artists? In Barton Fink, the life of a creative person seemed scary and uncertain, with hazards leaping out at you, or lying in wait in the next room. Twenty-two years later, the Coens have made another film about a creative person. This time, the view is colder, sadder, barely rewarding. John Goodman appears in both films. In the first, he was a grinning serial killer. In this one, he can barely walk. He tells a lot of boring showbiz stories, and isn't interested in anyone else. I think there's a link here. If Davis represents the Coens, Goodman represents show business itself: dangerous and all consuming when you're young; bloated and sickly when you're older. (Goodman also claims to practice black magic in this film; could he have cursed Davis, which is why the folk singer's life is such a mess?)

The film was met with accolades upon it's release a few weeks ago. Audiences, however, haven't warmed to it, and the recent Academy Award announcements all but ignored it. Maybe it doesn't deserve any awards. But it sneaks up on you. At long last, Barton Fink finally has a companion piece for the double bill. 

When I first heard that the Oscar Grant case was being made into a movie, I imagined it as an angry, political piece, with monstrous white cops killing a young black man for no reason, something like Do The Right Thing, but with an Oakland setting and without the comic interludes. I imagined a somber piece, with a lot people wailing at the injustice of it all. It would've been watchable, and probably stirring, but it wouldn't have been especially memorable. Anger, in and of itself, is one dimensional and dull. Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is neither one dimensional or dull. That's because he's chosen to tell as much as he can about Grant, a 22-year-old who is neither an angel or a devil, but a person. Once Oscar is killed and the movie is over, we miss him. 

Fruitvale Station is as much about what it's like to be a young man in urban America today as it is about an altercation between some black men and some cops. Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is scuffling. He's lost his job at the local supermarket, his girlfriend  is angry at him for being unfaithful, and he's still haunted by memories of a stretch he did in San Quentin. On the other hand, he's made the New Year's resolution to stop selling marijuana, he's a doting father to his daughter, and he's trying to make amends regarding his romantic life. We get the sense that he's a good guy, if a little irresponsible. His family appear to be decent people, and there's a distinctly warm atmosphere as they're preparing for a New Year's Eve dinner at his mother's home. 

As the movie opens, Oscar is trying to do a dozen things at once:  talk his ex-boss into rehiring him; buy a birthday car for his mother; make plans for the evening; smooth things out with his girlfriend; give his daughter a ride to school. In the middle of his day he sees a stray dog get hit by a car. He's helpless to do anything about it as the car speeds away. Life is cheap, or so Coogler seems to convey. Coogler directs in a very matter of fact style: no flash, no sizzle, just strong, basic storytelling. Oscar carries the still breathing dog to the parking lot of a gas station and leaves him there. His anger dissipates quickly; he's been so helpless against the tide for so long that that he knows it's a lost cause. It's the first sign in the movie that things may not go well.

It's his mother (Octavia Spencer) who suggests he and his buddies ride the train on New Year's eve rather than drive. The train ride is actually joyous, as holiday revelers are partying in their seats. When the train stalls just before midnight, the passengers make the best of it and have their own countdown. Oscar and his friends begin dancing in the aisles. Suddenly, a brawl breaks out. With frightening speed, the brawl is broken up, and Oscar and his friends are being harangued by the biggest meanest transit cop you've ever seen. As Oscar argues, you want him to shut up. Of course, the cop sucker punches Oscar, kicks him, insults him, and otherwise abuses him. Oscar is a feisty sort, and he's not going to shut up.

The shooting incident happens so quickly that you're not even sure what happens, which is how it probably was in real life. More cops arrive on the scene, and a shot is fired. The next thing we see is Oscar on the ground, blood pouring from his mouth. The meanest of the cops huddles over him, holding his hand, telling him to keep his eyes open. Even this bully of a cop seems surprised that things turned out this way. The cop probably figured he'd bust a few heads and that would be that. The fellow who did the shooting would later claim he thought he had his Taser in his hand, not his gun. He went to prison for 11 months. Oscar died the next morning. 

Although racism plays a major hand here, the real villain of the piece is the randomness of life. At different times in the movie Oscar considers not going out. What if he'd stayed home? What if he'd stepped into a different train and the brawl never started? What if more level headed cops had been on the scene?  In the end, a lot of things combined to kill Oscar Grant.

Fruitvale Station is about an ordinary young man, full of foibles and flaws, trying to get his life together, who was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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