Inside Llewyn Davis (4.5/5):
A Coen Brothers’ film usually doesn’t give a shit about an audience’s expectations. Their films exist in an askew universe, one that isn’t predicated on plot points, a quickened pace, or transparent dialog. And, if I’m being honest, their best work has often been their most elusive, plaguing audiences with abstract questions and duplicitous dialog that demand multiple viewings. This notion applies for their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a tale about a down on his luck folk singer (Oscar Isaac) trying to make a name for himself in New York’s Greenwich Village. Llewyn’s talent is pure, and his confidence suggests a meteoric rise to stardom is in place, but he aimlessly moves through life with little foresight. In some respects, he plays the inalienable starving artist stereotype to perfection, refusing to compromise his vision for the sake of a few dollars more. Making matters worse is his inability to escape the suicide of his musical partner, whose name is often brought up when he performs. One gets the sense that Llewyn recognizes his career was, and forever will be, haunted by his former musical conspirator. So, he painstakingly makes his life hard, sleeping on the couches of strangers and alienating friends with his dedicated artist routine. Llewyn’s prickly demeanor, especially towards fellow singer Jean Berkley (Carey Mulligan), a woman harboring a pregnancy that personifies Llewyn’s lack of planning, is insufferable.
But over the course of a few days, and by way of an impromptu road trip out of desperation, the Coen Brothers unearth a troubled man living behind a crumbling facade. People no longer buy into Llewyn’s shtick; they really couldn’t care less. Realistically, he’s only fooling himself. Surrounding Llewyn’s personal and professional crisis is a cold, harsh winter that constantly bites him at every turn. Even though Llewyn’s life possesses a melancholic hue, Oscar Isaac’s performance is surprisingly warm. It’s a shame Isaac isn’t nominated for an Academy Award because his performance is impeccably measured, shifting between ferocious asshole to damaged pussy cat hiding behind a fading veneer with great dexterity. He especially shines in front of a microphone, delivering fantastic musical moments that are ripe with passion. And being that this is a Coen Brothers’ film, there are a stable of colorful characters we meet along the way, some of which are absolutely hilarious, while others take a more tragic turn. In spite of its rather downbeat arc, Inside Llewyn Davis is another worthwhile film from cinema’s celebrated oddballs. Shot and lit in a way that’s reminiscent of a Bob Dylan album cover brought to life, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the missing lyrics of a musician’s life.
The Act of Killing (4.75/5):
What is the life of a killer like? Are their bones crippled with regrets and nightmares, or does life simply move on as if blood had never been spilled? Director Joshua Oppenheimer attempts to answer this question with his unflinching documentary, The Act of Killing. His subjects are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two gangsters who went from selling movie tickets to commanding death squads during the Indonesian Killings of 1965 and 1966. Anwar, a man with nearly a thousand murders attached to his name, lives a charmed life as an unofficial father to a powerful paramilitary regime (the Pemuda Pancasila) strangling Indonesia’s belief in its state. Anwar and Adi, along with their fellow death squad leaders, look fondly back on their days of killing, often laughing about the massacres they perpetrated. Eventually, Oppenheimer asks Anwar and Adi to recreate their glory days through cinematic reenactments. Tasked with recreating the vicious methods they implemented against human flesh, Anwar and Adi joyously shoot destructive scene after destructive scene, some of which contain real citizens violently caught in the two killer’s simulation.
The recreations are revolting, unnerving, and surreal, as the killers frame their murders through the film genres that inspired their deathly antics. Moreover, it’s kind of amazing how quickly the two men resurrect a past littered with innocent corpses. In one particular scene Anwar demonstrates how he humanely choked people to death with leverage and a metal wire. Anwar skillfully wraps up his subject and pulls the wire tight, suggesting his proficiency for killing is deeply entrenched in his muscles. Strangulation and rape become punch lines for these men, but Anwar’s nostalgic trip loses steam when he finds himself in the role of his victims. And this is where the film’s grotesque nature pays off, as Oppenheimer masterfully guides Anwar towards a point of realization, one that at least shows he’s capable of empathy. The more Anwar serves as his victim’s bodies, remorse infiltrates his dreams. Soon after, doubt slowly slides a knife into his gut, releasing the pain of his victims onto his nerves. It’s a fascinating arc, but not one that comes easily. Oppenheimer’s efforts behind the camera yields gruesome, but necessary results. If we look away from these killers, and ignore the past, the bodies will continue to stack. Thankfully, The Act of Killing keeps us fixated on the monsters.