60s, 70s and 80s. Movies Reviewed: Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Good Vibrations
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
New Year’s Day (coming soon!) is when you declare your resolutions and your goals. And sometimes, you find you’re overly ambitious. I’m looking at three great movies this week, all about men with ambitions they can’t always meet. They’re all loosely based on true stories and take place in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I’m reviewing them chronologically. First a folk musician, then a con man, and then a promoter of punk.
Inside Llewyn Davis
It’s 1961. Llewyn’s a Welsh-Italian-American folk singer who performs at the Gaslight café in Greenwich Village (brilliantly played by actor and musician Oscar Isaac). He’s recorded his first solo album (his folk duo is no more) but it’s not doing well. He’s broke. He’s homeless. And it’s cold out — and he doesn’t even have a winter coat; just a corduroy jacket. With a guitar on his back and a runaway cat in his arms… he’s just blowin’ in the wind. He’s couch surfing between a Columbia prof’s apartment in the upper west side (that’s where the cat lives), and a married couple Jean and Jim’s place in the Village (that’s where his guitar lives). Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) are a happy young couple, who also sing in a folk duet. Also at the Gaslight.
All is not well for poor Llewyn. His agent is crooked, his not-girlfriend girlfriend is pregnant, his dad is comatose, and a stranger in a cowboy hat has a hate-on. Llewyn keeps making the wrong decisions. But he refuses to sell out. He doesn’t want to wear a white turtleneck. He doesn’t want to sing in a trio. He’s on the verge of making it big… or packing it all in and joining the Merchant Marines. So as a last ditched effort, he hitches a ride out to Chicago with a mean and nasty blues singer (marvelously played by John Goodman) to get a famous folk promoter to sign him.
It sounds like a so-so story… but it’s not. This is a fantastic drama tracing a couple days in the life of this urban troubador. It’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s story. (He was a pretty famous folksinger from New York that you may have heard of.) The movie’s ordinary, and yet extraordinary. It gradually reveals surprising secrets, even while it dangles red herrings. Watching the movie, you get tossed around, clueless, just like Llewyn Davis, until things gradually start to become clear. This movie captures the feeling of the era, before JFK’s assassination, between 50s conformity and 60s mass protest and counterculture. And about a third of the movie is wonderful music performed by the actors. I think it’s one of the the Coen Brothers’ best.
Dir: David O. Russell
Irv is a con man. He pulls off low-level jobs — art forgeries, bank fraud – in New York. Sydney is originally from Albuquerque, but she dresses like a Cosmo cover model. She creates a new self – an aristocratic Englishwoman. They meet at a party, fall in love, and become power-team of scammers. But when a con flops, Irv and Sydney (an uglified Christian Bale, lovely Amy Adams) find themselves working for the FBI. If they can bring the FBI four crooks, they get immunity. Richie (Bradley Cooper) the fed who catches them has big ambitions. He wants to run a con to catch crooked businessmen, politicians … the sky’s the limit! To pull it off, they need the bigwigs to accept a briefcase of cash from an agent dressed as a Sheikh from the Emirates.
Irv is cautious. He doesn’t want to take it that high: respect your limits. When Richie tries to rope in the mob, Irv sees nothing but trouble. As Irv says, you can’t con a con. Well, Irv gets all palsy-walsy with a potential mark, a popular Jersey mayor named Carmine (Jeremy Renner). But to be friends with Carmine family he has to bring his real wife, Rosalyn, into the mix. Yes, Irv is married, and not to Sydney. And Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, stealing every scene she’s in) is a bleach blonde homebody who talks like a gangster’s moll. She’s the fly in his ointment. Sydney, in retaliation, starts coming on to the vain (yet douche-y) FBI-man, Richie. Will they pull off the scams or go to jail? Will Irving choose Roz or Sydney? (And why are all the characters obsessed with their hair?)
This movie’s not deep, driven or meaningful – except, maybe, that we’re all vain and self-centred – but it does it so well. It’s funny, quirky and fast moving. I liked it a lot.
Dir: Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn
It’s Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Troubles. Bombs are exploding, people beaten or killed by paramilitary groups. In the middle of all this is Terri Hooley (played by the terrific Richard Dormer). His friends once were anarchists, pacifists, feminists. Now they’re just Catholics or Protestants. But Terri opts out of sectarian conflict and opens a record store, Good Vibrations, right in the thick of it. And, against all expectations, this bearded, smiley and spontaneous leftist is suddenly drawn into the local punk scene. New York has its haircuts, he says, and London its trousers, but Belfast is the only place with a real reason for punk. As thousands are killed, he sets up a punk club in a strip bar and starts up a record label. But will anyone outside of the city ever hear them?
Interspersed with period BBC news footage, Good Vibrations is a fun biopic about one man’s attempt to reclaim a no-man’s land using punk rock.
Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle and Good Vibrations all open today in Toronto. (Check your local listings.)
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com