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Inside Llewyn Davis Reviewed

December 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

Inside-Llewyn-Davis1Alissa Wilkinson has an early review of the new Coen brother’s movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a darkly funny film that recreates the texture of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, and for those of us who love the Coens’ meandering storytelling style, it’s a masterpiece. It features some truly outstanding performances, both musical and thespian—particularly from Isaac, who performed the music live, as well as Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, who play Llewyn’s sweet-natured best friend Jim and his vitriolic wife Jean (who calls him “King Midas’s idiot brother,” alongside other choice terms). The Coens collaborated closely with T Bone Burnett, the music producer with whom they worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou (the film’s soundtrack also features Marcus Mumford and Punch Brothers). And it looks good, too, thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell, whose other work includes the visually sumptuous Amelie.

It’s also rich with narrative and symbolic layers and allusions, so many that I can’t write about all of them because this essay would be at least three thousand words longer than it is. (Believe me, it was hard to refrain.) But like pretty much every movie the brothers have made, Inside Llewyn Davis improves if you put on some moviegoing spectacles and watch it with care (and it rewards a re-watch, too).

This is important to remember: the Coens are modern-day myth-weavers, contemporary legend-builders. Their characters and plots are often drawn from archetypes that already exist in our collective imagination. No matter what their movies are about—incompetent CIA agents, cheating wives, baby thieves, Midwestern cops—there’s also invariably some kind of Big Story underneath, too, which is why a number of their movies are populated by zany larger-than-life characters who function as types as much as people.

I’m no classics scholar, but as a rule of thumb, I think about myths, legends, fables, and folktales as the stories a group of people tells each other about themselves in order to understand who they are. Scholars argue over whether and to what degree these stories originate in allegories or actual events, but as someone recently said to me, they are in a sense “more true” than the facts: they shape our imaginations about our identities as individuals, families, and communities. A creation story, for instance, tells a society where it came from, where it’s headed, and what it can expect to encounter along the way. And so even if the events didn’t “happen” exactly the way the story has it, it’s still very true.

MV5BMjg2MjI1OTU2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODc3MzM5OQ@@._V1_The dark of the uneven tree line contrasts the soft light of sky. So begins David Lowery’s western “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (trailer).

Whether this light is the hope of the day or the dusk of night Lowery does not reveal.

Most every scene in the movie is in the “magic hours” of the day, either the wee hours of the morning, the late hours of the day, or in the night with barely enough light to see. But it is not only the way Lowery plays with light that makes this western unique, it is the information Lowery withholds.

The plot is simple, an outlaw in Texas in the 70’s trying to get back to his beloved family. But it is far from the typical movie. There is little dialogue and Lowery feels no pressure to let viewers know the background on any of the characters. Rather the focus is on the present and the possible future.

The first scene begins with Bob (Casey Affleck) chasing Ruth (Rooney Mara) through an open field trying to resolve an argument, while she is threatening to leave. She is truly upset, but the viewer is not exactly sure why.

Lowery then has them flirting in an old truck and Bob speaking to their unborn daughter about their future. This scene becomes very important for the entire movie, for Bob romanticizes the future imagining what could be, a repeated theme in the movie. Then Bob leaves with a gun to rob some sort of store with a partner. It then quickly moves to a shootout, but Lowery has no interest in the robbery, the chase, or even the shootout.

Bob ends up in prison and Ruth gives birth to their daughter. Escaping from prison, Bob then tries to reunite with his beloved family.

Lowery never tells viewers how or why Bob and Ruth got into the robbing business, who exactly Bob’s deceased partner is, and what exactly the relationship is between Bob, Ruth and the older man who probably raised Bob. A friend from long ago helps Bob after he escapes from prison, but not surprisingly, viewers get no background on him either except a line or two about their past. Patrick (Ben Foster) the cop who begins to pursue Ruth while Bob is in prison is given plenty of screen time, but rarely speaks.

The narrative gaps, the lack of information on each character cause viewers to conceptualize things for themselves. It makes them use their imagination and create a future and past for Bob and Ruth. Lowery repeatedly has Bob speaking about their future together which is never realized.

As Bob describes it a letter to Ruth, “I am so close to you I can almost reach out and touch your cheek” but their reunion is not the picture he painted. Bob is an emotive idealist, with a huge heart, but he does not think through things logically. This idealism and romanticism revealed most clearly when he tells his friend how he escaped prison. He makes up some elaborate story, and then his friend says, “I heard you jumped out of a work truck,” and Bob shrugs.

At the end of the movie Lowery has the scene is the truck recur again, something he never does with their past. Bob says to their future daughter.

Well let me tell you about something. I am gonna to tell you about the future. In the future I am a very old man. I am standing in the door. We are in a house, it’s our house, somewhere far away from here, where everything is green and the sun is setting. And the way I see it, we are waving to somebody. And maybe that somebody is you, come to see us after a long time. If it is you, we are very happy to see you.

The gaps in the background push the viewer forward to consider what “could” be. Bob is always describing what it will be like when he sees her again, what it will be like to meet his daughter, and how Ruth and him will die in each others arms.

The magic of the movie comes in the sounds and Rooney Mara’s superb acting. Daniel Hart puts together a masterful soundtrack that includes bluegrass, clapping, and strings. Additionally, Casey Affleck’s voice is perfect for reading his letters out loud. The raspiness of his chords go in and out, and coincides with the light moving on and off him. Lowery presents him as a character with dark and light, with sympathy and with a guilty shadow. Rooney Mara like most of the characters speaks little, but her eyes and body language tell what words cannot.

Because of the nature of the film, people have compared it to the Terrance Malick style. And although there are similarities, with a focus on the visual, it is something different. For Lowery does have a straightforward plot structure and also includes more dialogue.

There are flaws to the movie. Lowery spent too much time on Bob’s friend, and the assassins that are hired to kill Bob also seemed out of place. But in the end the movie is still a success and closes with one of the more powerful scenes I have watched in a movie for a long time.

That ray of light at the beginning of the movie is dark of night, for Bob’s dreams never come to be. For as he says at the end, “at the same time I feel like I am guilty, there is no telling, there is just no telling.”





The Hobbit

December 22, 2012 — 4 Comments

The-Hobbit-poster-2I just returned from seeing The Hobbit. My expectations were not high, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Being transported back to Middle Earth reminded me of how thrilling it was going to watch The Lord of the Rings.

We can be very thankful that Peter Jackson picked up this project rather than someone else who certainly would not have made it coincide as well with the LOTR Trilogy.

Most of the critiques I have heard of the movie have some good answers. I agree with Owen Strachan, the best article to read on the subject is from Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post.

Jackson extended the book in a way that is faithful to Tolkien although much of it is not necessarily in The Hobbit. But if you are going to extend The Hobbit, this is the way to do it.

I have not read the book in about 5-7 years, so I was able to enjoy the movie without being overly critical of what they changed. I do wish Bilbo would have found the ring in the exact way he did in the book. Although it was close, I expected that Jackson would have not diverted from the plot in the least in this scene. I have copied the part from the book below.

Very slowly he got up and groped about on all fours, till he touched the wall of the tunnel; but neither up nor down it could he find anything: nothing at all, no sign of goblins, no sign of dwarves. His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment. He did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while. He thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home—for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other; but that only made him miserabler.

There were a few other parts I wished were different.

  • I remember fondly the part about the Trolls and Gandalf throwing his voice until the sun came up. I am not sure it matters that much, but I thought this was an important scene of character development for Gandalf which was missed. Rather they made it a character development scene for Bilbo.
  • The stone giants part (although in the book) was weird and overplayed. I thought I was suddenly watching a Rocky movie.

But as Owen says, don’t believe the critics, this movie is well done. It celebrates humility, virtue, hope, and the triumph of goodness. Below were some of the parts I thought were done well.

  • I enjoyed the brief historical piece about Erebor and Thorin. It was very similar to the way the LOTR started and set things in perspective.
  • I was glad they included Frodo and Bilbo (albeit briefly)as they were in the LOTR. It made the two movies connect in a way that immediately endeared the movie to me.
  • Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarves was right on.
  • The humor was fitted for the type of book The Hobbit was. It is more a kids book which did include humor.
  • The songs were well done and not as corny as I thought they would be.
  • Gandalf (Ian McKellen) fit his character perfectly, as he did before. Just like in LOTR he had some conversations in the book that give a nice pause to the action and provide much needed reflective and philosophical depth to the film (more movies need to do this, it can make or break a movie).
  • Bilbo was appropriately humble. I was afraid they were going to try to make him too much of a hero.
  • I love that these movies portray good and evil in such stark images.
  • The scene between Gollum and Bilbo was masterfully done and the best part of the movie.

So when you go to the see the movie, don’t expect it to be exactly like the book, but let it stand on its own ground, and celebrate what Jackson did well.

I am looking forward to next Christmas.



Courageous Review

October 11, 2011 — Leave a comment

I have not seen the movie Courageous, but one commentator at the White Horse Inn blog says the following:

Courageous rejects nuance and the cross-bearing pilgrimage of the Christian life for artificially neat resolutions to the prayers of its one-dimensional characters. Sherwood continues to make films with God functioning primarily as a tool for our lives—whether he’s helping us win football games, repair our struggling marriages, or helping us find a job within seconds of a cry to the heavens. Brief, passing references to the gospel are only seen useful to convert a skeptic, who in a few tearful seconds somehow embraces the faith. Despite all the sermonizing dialogue—the story’s form and emphatic message has all of its focus on us and our accomplishments, not Christ and his work for us. In what could be page out of a John Elridge book, the “manly” vocation of police officer is used as the icon of fatherhood. Violent shootouts and car chase stunts ensure being a godly dad also looks as glorious as possible. Even the poster image calls to mind the slow-motion hero shot popularized by Michael Bay. As for the women, they are given little to do than look on approvingly.

HT: Blake White

Drive | Review

October 5, 2011 — 1 Comment

Ben Witherington has a review of the movie Drive, which I plan on going to see in the near future. He says:

First the disclaimers.  A movie for kids this is not.  A movie for Christian families with kids, this is not.  A movie for the squeamish when it comes to violence this is not.  If Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ caused indigestion while eating popcorn, this movie has moments that will do the same.  At the same time, this film shows the wickedness and brutality and life-destroying power of all violence, and frankly that is a good thing.   The reviewers are saying this film will get some Oscar consideration, and I agree. It is a powerful film.  You may ask— How can a film about vice have virtues?  Well, in fact it can, if for no other reason that it reminds us to ‘go and do otherwise’ rather than being tempted to ‘go and do likewise’.

Firstly, this film is a morality play, as are most all mob movies. Things always go wrong, not as planned.  Wicked actions always have unintended terrible consequences.  It makes you believe we really do live in a moral universe.   And that is a good thing.

Secondly, the cinematography in this film is spectacular, the camera simply fixated on Ryan Gosling, and to a lesser degree on Ms. Mulligan.  It does indeed remind one of the old TV series Miami Vice, and so does the music, though it is a bit less synthesized than Maroder’s Korg  marauders. I almost expected to hear ‘In the Air Tonight’ in some scenes. The nighttime aerial photography is spectacular.  It almost makes one want to spend more time in L.A.—- welllll, almost.

Thirdly, Ryan Gosling establishes himself as a true James Dean type. Strong, silent, and an incredible driver, and a gear head to boot.  In fact he is so silent, I’ll bet his entire dialogue in this movie amounts to about ten pages of script.  The boy doesn’t say much,  he just drives.  But that in itself speaks volumes about him.

Fourthly,  Albert Brooks is excellent in this film.  In fact you could say he is ‘wicked good’ and mean it.  A stylish crook, smooth talker, but in the end, willing to resort to ‘whatever means necessary’ to maintain his life in the style to which he is accustomed.  None of the characters in this film, except perhaps Irene and her child, are all that likable, but the film does highlight that in the midst of the darkness, there are some redeeming features to the ‘kid’.  He has a good heart…. he also has a violent one.   Here again love and death are effectively juxtaposed.

Lastly, precisely because there are moral consequences to immoral actions, even our anti-hero does not have things turn out as he would like. Indeed, he has to get the heck out of Dodge. Just drive kid, just drive.  The problem is— wherever he goes, there HE is.  You cannot outrun yourself, but you can drive yourself crazy.  Think about it.

The Tree of Life

June 25, 2011 — 1 Comment

It is a film that fascinates and frustrates. It enchants and exasperates.

Two and a half hours of whispers, enrapturing scenery, and the occasional dinosaur. This will be a movie hated or loved, in fact, I find myself between the two.

Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is like moving from Ruth to Revelation. Most movies have a straight forward story, while Tree of Life uses images, sounds, and camera angles to communicate. The movie, like art, is meant to evoke feelings, and to be interpreted. Malick, as usual, breaks all of Holywood’s rules and composes a film that at times confuses, and other times soars. One reviewer rightly says:

The imagery focuses on life on a cellular level, to the family, to the vastness of space. It seems to show mankind’s place in God’s plan simultaneously as both insignificant and of the upmost importance. Beauty is shown all around us and emotion is displayed through the smallest facial gesture.

The Plot

The movie begins by quoting Job 38:4,7  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding…when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” In its entirety it is about God, the deep questions of life that only Scripture answers, and the opposing forces of nature and grace.

The plot begins with a tragedy in the O’Brien family and shows them struggling to survive with their emotions. Then as if harkening back to Job, Malick has a 15 minute section with no dialogue and an array of captivating scenery that chronicles the creation of the universe. Most identify it with the “Big Bang,” but my brain bent towards creation ex-nihilo. It felt at one point, as if I were seeing only what God saw before he made mankind.

It goes back to being 10 percent normal by rewinding back to the O’Brien family in Waco Texas in the 1950’s. Here it shows the complexity of this one family and the nature/grace dichotomy between the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). Malick centers on the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn), entering the complexity of the emotions of a pre-teen. Through this boy Malick somehow combines a range of emotions that every child felt and did not know how to process. Guilt, happiness, anger, jealousy, lust, are all magically shown through the facial expressions and whispers coming through the screen.

In the end Sean Penn symbolically dies and enters the after-life on the beach with his family from the 1950’s.


The film is aptly named The Tree of Life because it has moved from the creation of the world to the death of it’s main character, Jack. Along the way the conflict between nature and grace are woven throughout its cinematic scenes. It is clear that the struggle of Jack is a microcosm of the struggle of the universe.

Towards the beginning the narrator says “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.”  On the other hand, grace is “smiling through all things.”  According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”

This dichotomy is most clearly seen in Jack. His father is a hard man, while his mother is full of grace. But as the movie goes on it is evident that Jack is turning out more like his father than his mother, he even admits it. Towards the end of the movie Jack whispers, “Father…mother…you are always warring within me.” With this line the scenes of Old Jack chasing Young Jack through the desert and beach begin to make sense. Jack is trying to figure out who he is, how he came to be.


The movie moves beyond itself. At times it was pure worship, as if the Psalms and God’s speech in the whirlwind to Job, were coming to life before my very eyes. But at other times, I was bored and confused.

On the other hand, my wife began laughing when the credits rolled because she thought the whole thing was completely outrageous. And a part of me sympathized with the laugh. But I also sympathize with those who will love it, who can identity with Jack’s childhood, who can sit and appreciate the beauty Malick painted.

I think Malick could have made the film briefer, and easier to follow, but still kept his unique touch.

No matter what one thinks of the movie, they will walk away thinking beyond themselves. They will wonder where they were when the foundations of the earth were laid. They will wonder where the dwelling place of light is. They will come close to saying…

“I am of small account; what shall I answer you.” (Job 40:4)

And that is not so much a bad thing.