In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.
So, how was all of this? Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy. In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).
Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:
Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs. In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in. On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business. This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.
In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember. Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality. They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality. Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.
Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you. The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into. (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).
As for the films:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever. It also helps that she is immensely talented. If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with. It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe. Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.
If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on. Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.
Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out. But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.
One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG. I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:
a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and
b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.
When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America. I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries? Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment. Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug. So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.
Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.
But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game. Oh no – here we go again. Yup, that’s right. Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had. How much of this can we watch? Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight? That should give you a pretty good idea. There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience. Only money. And…sequels. Two more at the very least. (Note: Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).
As for the premiere itself:
- At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
- You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
- Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.
- The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
- The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
- You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis. This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film. Why couldn’t I pronounce it? Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it? Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?
The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.
Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met. He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy. In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing. He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.
This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts. That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.
Well, what is normal anyway? Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking. In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred. Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.
One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry. They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees. They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me. They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time. That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.
It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).
Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?
Um, well. We don’t do icons. (Long silence).
Um, well, okay.
Q: Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?
Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all. Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually? Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.
Perhaps it was the interviewer. The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared. I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you? This person did not.
On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it. It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen. It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there. And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win. You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.
Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough. Or maybe it’s not. I mean, what do awards mean anyway? Okay, let’s not go there.
What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it. Hmm, not sure that happened. Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do. Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview. Certainly, it was among the most memorable.
In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success. One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed. Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these. The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.
About the film:
- Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here. He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film. It’s worth seeing for him alone.
- The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner. Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences. LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
- The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
- The running time is 105 minutes. Few films should be over two hours. Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.
- There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
- Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
- Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.