Reviews: Another Three-Pack

The movies have arrived fast and furious here in the heart of awards season, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on and more yet to come. Time to cross a few off the list with another round of not-quite-full reviews, this go-around generally centered on a trio of terrific actors.

Inside Llewyn Davis

A mish-mash of the Coen brothers’ favorite themes and devices, “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t so much surprise as ingratiate; much like its eponymous protagonist, this is a film that wheedles its way into your heart, inviting you to fall prey to a cycle of failure and absurdity of tragicomic proportions against all better judgment. Borrowing the floundering artist of “Barton Fink,” the Job-esque confluence of fate of “A Serious Man,” and the musical Odyssey structure of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coens have arranged and rearranged and arrived with yet another gem. Superbly crafted, as one would expect, “Inside Llewyn Davis” really sets itself part in the Coens’ body of work thanks to an indelible lead and the exceptional performance behind him.

There have been an awful lot of films (of supremely varying quality) on the ineffability of creative genius, but perhaps only a team as perverse as the Coen brothers would be so fascinated by the stagnation of near-genius. Flitting from couch to couch by day and cafe to cafe by night, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is just one of any number of itinerant musicians trying to make his way in the crowded folk music scene of 1960’s New York. Once part of an up-and-coming duo, Davis is struggling as a solo act: his new album has made nary a dent, he may have gotten his best friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, and to top things off he’s been saddled with an orange tabby that, like all cats, seems hell bent on inconveniencing his every move. But where Davis separates himself from previously star-crossed Coen characters like Larry Gopnik or Barton Fink is that Davis may entirely deserve his kharmic gauntlet.

Brutally sarcastic and detached, Davis seems set on setting himself back even in the few moments that divine intervention isn’t doing it for him. It’s thanks to Isaac’s charismatic, finely balanced turn that we can still see the value in, and even root for, such an embittered, misanthropic man. There are points you desperately wish he would act differently, but you can always glean the deep-seeded pain and frustration in Davis’ eyes, or, more importantly, in his music. Davis is not Barton Fink, a blue-collar pretender whose intense writer’s block stemmed at least partly from his feigned worldliness; his art comes from somewhere deeply personal, its expression compulsory. As Isaac himself aptly put it in an interview with NPR, “Life is squeezing [Davis], and these are the sounds he’s making.”

The film wanders with no particular narrative, holding even more loosely to its Homeric framework than the already rather liberated “O Brother” (although one particular, ill-advised joke hammers home the allusion too hard). John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund arrive halfway through the film for an appropriately eerie descent into the underworld, manifested here as a famed nightclub in Chicago. There the “Inside Llewyn Davis” version of Hades, a gruff, on-point F. Murray Abraham, delivers perhaps the most devastating line of dialogue of the year; and so Davis is sentenced to return back to where he started, forced the confront the dingy back-alleys and endless doldrums that are his home.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

Nebraska

If there’s been something missing from Alexander Payne’s road-trip films up to this point (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) it’s perhaps an appropriate sense of weariness, of the physical and mental exhaustion that results from crossing mile after mile of black-top highway. The writer-director’s wit and nimble direction always keeps things relatively light, even when addressing the most strained emotions. “Nebraska” is far from glum, but its confluence of casting, setting and style gives its central family a lived-in, worn-out feel that resonates more genuinely than some of Payne’s past characters.

Traversing a stark Midwestern landscape that would probably exist in black-and-white even if Phedon Papamichael hadn’t shot it that way, David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) are on a fool’s errand. Woody, a doddering alcoholic two shuffles short of senility, has received one of those “You may have already won $1 million” mail scams I thought had long since gone the way of Nigerian royalty, and is determined to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, even if he has to walk there. As travel plans go, this makes “The Straight Story” look like Expedia, so David resignedly agrees to drive his father the distance. It’s partly an act of kindness towards the confused old man, but David has plenty of his own reasons for making the journey: the opportunity to spend some his time with his long-distant father, perhaps, and if nothing else to get out of town for a weekend and away from his ex-girlfriend who has just moved out of the apartment.

This is prime episodic road-trip fodder, but Lincoln gets sidetracked as David and Woody stop on the way for an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, a tiny Nebraska backwater mostly unchanged since World War II. As David encounters some of Woody’s old family, friends, and, in a particularly poignant scene, lovers, “Nebraska” becomes an expertly crafted study of small-town dynamics. In a place like Hawthorne, everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the gossip that “Woody Grant’s a millionaire” spreads like wildfire, creating unexpected tensions with opportunistic relatives and Woody’s former business partner (a gruff and suitably domineering Stacy Keach).

Placed in this unforgiving setting, the film provides a sharp and melancholic contrast between delusions and dreams on the one hand, and harsher reality on the other. Nostalgia and memory interweave, providing Woody and David with a glimpse of both pain and happiness gone by. David has generally viewed his father’s absenteeism and drinking problem, not unfairly, with disdain; in these reflections of Woody’s past, we are given a more complicated picture, of a fundamentally decent man troubled by regrets he may never be able to articulate.

Woody’s inability to voice his fears and frustrations makes him quite a match for his wife Kate (June Squibb), a no-nonsense live wire that acts as the film’s truth-teller. The scenes between the two of them are a kind of perfection of character you could only get from two performers who have spent their long, long careers away from the top billing: Squibb, matter-of-fact in a manner that conveys resignation rather than petulance, and Dern, slouched and slumped but with infinitely sad, restless eyes, make you believe in every one of the many years that have passed between the two. Forte, along with Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother Ross, fills out the unit in convincing fashion. Suitably enough, it’s this family that, even amongst Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s humorous asides on Midwestern culture, gives “Nebraska” a sense of purpose.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s a mystery to me that, after all these years and acceptance into the cinematic canon, Martin Scorsese apparently still has the ability to brew up so much trouble. All the more power to him – at age 71, he yet has the sharp wit and exuberant style that made his name in the 70s. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a sort of spiritual successor to “GoodFellas” in the director’s “epic of bad behavior” sub-genre, is Scorsese’s freshest, most wickedly funny film in some time, and with that brash attitude there was bound to be some misguided backlash.

While “GoodFellas” charted the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a working-class mafioso who got his hands extremely dirty scrabbling his way to the high life, “The Wolf of Wall Street” trains Scorsese’s sights on white-collar crime: the Financial District fat cats that find excess and luxury while barely so much as lifting a finger. The film’s real-life anti-hero, Jordan Belfort (played here by an energized Leonardo DiCaprio), was your typical bright-eyed young business major, who quickly descended into a life of hard partying when he discovered just how easy stock swindling could be for a motor-mouthed charmer such as himself. Along with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a cadre of sleazebag salesmen, Belfort took his upstart brokerage firm to heights of decadence heretofore imagined only by the likes of Caligula.

Much of the film’s grand three-hour running time is dedicated to these Wall Street bacchanalias, and one does wonder if this second act couldn’t have been trimmed down a bit for structure’s sake – by the time we reach Jordan’s gradual, inevitable tumble from Olympus, the handcuffs feel long overdue. But then, that is perhaps the point; Scorsese has come under fire for reveling too much in the wacky, drug-infused antics of fundamentally despicable people, as if we, the audience, weren’t laughing along every step of the way. The director is unapologetic in his depiction of Belfort’s selfish, destructive behavior, and why should he be: his firm’s fortune was made, for the most part, on the backs of others who aspired to the same lifestyle. Can we just not handle the idea that we too, should be criticized for helping create the system that produces the Jordan Belforts of the world?

There are elements of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that remain problematic. Depicting misogyny without participating in it has been a stumbling block for even the greatest filmmakers, and Scorsese can not really be excused here. “GoodFellas” nimbly handled the issue by its clever and unexpected hand-off of narration to Hill’s wife, Karen; neither Belfort’s aggrieved first wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti) nor his mistress and trophy Naomi (Margot Robbie) are afforded a similar opportunity. That Scorsese follows a particularly revolting scene of Jordan assaulting Naomi with a more ambiguously sympathetic scene of Belfort trying to protect his best friend, is troublesome.

Still, it has been a while since Scorsese created something that felt so dangerous and debatable, or had such singular stand-out elements. DiCaprio in particular gives one of, if not the best performance of his career, finally worthy of comparison to De Niro’s signature collaborations with the director. His physical dedication to bits both comedic and depraved (or a combination of both) is total. DiCaprio has grown more and more adventurous over the past decade, and it’s paid off in one of his most indelible characters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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