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Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davies

Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) was one half of a popular folk duo on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn must then rely on friends, family and strangers as he struggles to make it on his own, but doesn’t make life easy for himself.

There are few filmmakers who successfully span as many genres as the Coen brothers. Pretty much every film they make is a departure from the last, and yet you still know what to expect, such is their style. Inside Llewyn Davies may not be their most accessible film but is still another intriguing string to their already impressive bow.

Llewyn is a decent enough artist but has struggled to catch a break. He’s stuck in a rut, making no money and having to crash on the sofas of anyone who’ll have him. He’s also not a particularly nice person, leading to a rather uneasy, morose tone for the film. Llewyn tries to make his way in the world but we never really get the feeling it’ll ever work for him.

Looming over Llewyn and the whole film in general is the death of his friend and musical partner. From the first song we see Llewyn sing, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, to the nightmarish road trip he takes with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), death seems a ubiquitous presence throughout.

All this does make the film a little cold and not always engaging. Llewyn is his own worst enemy and generally a bit of a dick, which succeeds in keeping you just at arm’s length throughout. However, Llewyn is the source of a dry vein of humour that runs throughout, which is necessary to keep it from getting too depressing, and Oscar Issac must take a lot of credit for his performance. Isaac is note perfect as the downtrodden Llewyn, carrying an air of entitlement whilst trying to repress the fact he knows he’s not quite good enough.

As you’d expect, the music and in particular the folk songs (which were recorded live) are superb, and rather than just get snippets of the tracks, we’re treated to full length versions, which actually makes the film seem more akin to a traditional musical. Complementing the music is Bruno Delbonnel stunning cinematography which definitely has a touch of the Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick about it.

Inside Llewyn Davies also has an elliptically structured narrative which, whilst interesting, may frustrate some in not offering a clear conclusion to the story. But this is the Coens, so the chances of it wrapping up nicely were always pretty slim. It lets us draw our own conclusions, and few films recently have had me coming up with my own theories for so long afterwards.

In fact, there’s quite a lot to ponder upon and analyse should you feel the need. Everything from a ginger cat that Llewyn looks after to the songs he sings can take on alternative interpretations if you want to find them. It’s more than possible to enjoy the film at face value, but one could argue it’s a richer experience if you dig a little deeper.

Those expecting a by-the-numbers biopic are likely to be a little taken aback by Inside Llewyn Davies’s slow-burning, almost uneventful story, but the Coens have done what they do best in creating a film that rewards those who allow themselves to succumb to its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. In short, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

Pros

  • Fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac
  • Great soundtrack
  • Stunning cinematography
  • Can leave you thinking about it for days

Cons

  • Some may find it slightly cold and unfulfilling

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film review: Shame

Sex addiction is a topic that has garnered plenty of media focus over the past few years, but it’s a subject that, up until Shame, had not really been examined in film to such a degree. The reasons behind this are unclear; perhaps it’s because many don’t take it seriously as a condition, or maybe it’s that studios feel it would be too much of a risqué subject that would deter people from seeing it. Whatever the reason, the topic has finally been addressed and has been done so in a film that’s intense, shocking and sometimes harrowing.

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a 30-something New York bachelor; he’s successful, has a good job and a decent apartment. However, he also has an unflinching sex addiction that he must balance with his regular work and social life on a day-to-day basis. Brandon seeks out different sexual partners nightly and resorts to masturbating several times a day, even at work, to satisfy his urges. He seems relatively at ease with how he manages his life until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unexpectedly. This throws Brandon’s life into turmoil as he tries to come to terms with his sister’s arrival and still manage his fervent addiction.

The desire for sexual satisfaction consumes Brandon and it’s a constant search for his next fix, eventually forcing him to do whatever it takes to quell his urges. However, true satisfaction is something that, no matter the lengths he goes to, he never really attains. At no point is the film erotic; Brandon never seems to truly enjoy his encounters, but rather sees them as a means to an end. He’s scratching an itch, merely getting a hit before moving onto the next one. The only time Brandon attempts a relationship approaching normal, he’s awkward, uncomfortable and unable to perform as he otherwise would.

Sissy Sullivan (Mulligan)Shame marks the second time that director Steve McQueen has employed Michael Fassbender as his leading male, after 2008’s Hunger, and it’s clear he manages to get the best out of him. Fassbender’s performance is superb and he shows off the full spectrum of emotions as the struggling Brandon. It’s no surprise that McQueen is using Fassbender again in his next film, Twelve Years a Slave, which is due out some time next year. Mulligan also deserves mention as the clearly emotionally damaged invader of Brandon’s precariously balanced life. She has less time and scope to really develop her character (which is down to the script, not her), but she does well with what she’s given.

In terms of cinematography, Shame is absolutely stunning. The film does a fantastic job of capturing the vibrancy of New York without resorting to showing the big landmarks to qualify the film’s location – this is real New York. We see the palatial offices of the financial district when Brandon is comfortable with his life, but also see the seedy underbelly of a city that never sleeps when he is at his most desperate. McQueen’s use of the long take is prevalent throughout the film, really allowing us the ability to get more from the characters and the scenes and pushing the actors in terms of how invested they can become in their characters.

BrandonHowever, the film isn’t without its flaws, the majority of which come from the script. Whilst we are given an insight into Brandon’s life and how his addiction affects him, we are left in the dark somewhat as to the causes of his behaviour. We are given glimpses as to the root cause, but for some this may be a little obtuse. What is suggested to us may be deemed somewhat stereotypical and even a little easy as a behavioural catalyst. Whilst films shouldn’t have to spell everything out to a viewer, a certain level of exposition is important and perhaps Shame falls slightly short on this front. Fast forward and the film’s resolution is also lacking somewhat. We are given little indication as to the ramifications of the past hour and a half’s viewing or where the characters’ journey is headed. We are left without an answer as to how sex addiction can be overcome, if at all. As a character film, this works well enough, but it is most definitely not the examination of sex addiction that the film is billed as.

That said, Shame is one of the standout films of 2011, and how it was completely ignored by The Academy is, frankly, a little sad. For direction, cinematography and the actor’s performances, a nomination is the least it deserved. The film is not for the faint hearted, and most definitely not for the prudish, but for those curious about the topic of sex addiction and how deeply affecting it can be, Shame is essential viewing.

Words: Chris Thomson

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