DVD Round-Up: 1/17/2014

The Wolverine(1/9/2014)

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For The Wolverine to have been considered a success of sorts it just had to do one simple thing: not be as bad as X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  I’m happy to report that the film certainly cleared that extremely low bar.  Of course the movie starts out on one of the most ridiculous images put on screen since Indiana Jones nuked the fridge, but things do improve a bit from there.  Unlike the movies in the main X-Men series this movie seems to be largely disinterested in the “mutants as racial/sexual minorities” allegory, although it does fit in with the larger continuity of the series better than I expected it to.  Rather, this seems to be a bit more character focused and given the relatively low-key nature of Wolverine’s powers the action is a bit less over the top than what we usually see in superhero movies.  Also, I think Hugh Jackman maybe deserves some kind of medal for his willingness to stick with this character.  Wolverine is one of the few action movie characters of recent times to be a believable badass and he’s in fairly good form here.  In spite of all that, I can’t say I found the story here to be wildly interesting and the villains felt fairly generic.  There were some cool action scenes, but nothing that really blew me away.  In fact I could say that about most of the movie; it’s just kind of a middling entrant in the superhero genre and those looking for such a movie have plenty of better and worse options.

*** out of Four

A Band Called Death(1/10/2014)

I’m not sure if Searching For Sugar Man was a blessing or a curse for the documentary A Band Called Death, but I’m leaning towards the later.  That Sugar Man was the most popular doc of 2012 may have helped raise the profile of this similar documentary (about an overlooked protopunk band finally getting their due) but at the same time I feel like this story kind of pales in comparison to the one being told in Sugar Man.  For one thing, I feel like the Rodriguez’s story (which involved an obscure musician being wildly popular in a foreign country without even knowing it) simply feels a little more extraordinary than Death’s more pedestrian tale of a band that simply failed to score a record deal before finally being rediscovered by cratediggers thirty years later.  Additionally, I think Searching for Sugar Man did a much better job of showcasing its subject’s music and making a case for its importance.  I didn’t personally find anything over compelling about the few snippets of the band’s fast garage rock aside from the fact that it was released all of one year before The Ramones’ first album, and it’s even less impressive when you consider that there were other Detroit area bands like MC5 and The Stooges who were already pretty damn close to “inventing” punk before Death came along.  In short, I think that while there were some interesting things to be gleamed form this film, one “obscure musician gets recognized” documentary was probably enough.

**1/2 out of Four

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Prince Avalanche(1/11/2014)

1-11-2014PrinceAvalanche It’s amazing how a narrative can build around a director’s career in such a short amount of time.  In the case of David Gordon Green that narrative is that he was an indie director who “sold out” in order to make terrible Hollywood comedies.  I guess this is sort of true on its face, but it gets overstated.  First of all, he only made three studio comedies: one of them was great (Pineapple Express), one sounded interesting but is by all accounts bad (Your Highness), and one was by all accounts best forgotten (The Sitter).  Yet when you hear some people talk about it you’d think he’d turned into a hack of Tom Shadyac proportions.  People were so fed up with his career as the maker of Hollywood comedies that they welcomed with open arms his decision to return to serious indie fare.

I’m also glad that he’s making indie films again, but I kind of wish he’d made his comeback with a better film than Prince Avalanche.  To David Gordon Green’s credit, he’s found an interesting location to set a film and he’s also found a pretty good concept in having two guys bond while repainting a road.  However, I really did not like the way that Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsh’s characters were written at all.  The two guys talk and act almost like overgrown children, and not in a particularly funny way.  This is kind of a problem when your movie consists entirely of conversations between these two people.  The movie is really a pale imitation of the dramatic sweep of David Gordon Green’s early movies and it’s not as funny as Pineapple Express.  I’m hoping it’s just an awkward transitional effort that will lead to better things in the future.

** out of Four

The Act of Killing(1/15/2014)

The Act of Killing is almost certainly the most talked about documentary of the year.  Pretty much every website and podcast I’ve come across has at some point stopped and discussed the film, and after months of hearing things about the film it almost seems like an anti-climax now that I’ve finally seen the thing.  The film is in part about the mass killings that occurred in Indonesia during the mid-sixties, but really it’s about the lack of guilt that’s seemingly felt by those who carried out the purges.  Because the regime which ordered the execution is still in power, these men are actually held up as heroes by the establishment and their actions have almost become a thing of folklore.  With this film, director Joshua Oppenheimer has decided to follow two of these former perpetrators as they attempt to film stylized reenactments of what they were doing during this era.  These rather bizarre reenactments are interesting because they’re these odd little expressions of how these people view their pasts, but I’m not sure that they were the most successful aspect of the film.  In general I was more interested in seeing these guys just talk about what they did and I was generally unsettled by their casual demeanor while doing so.  I almost feel like I would have liked the movie better if it had been a straightforward interview piece, but I still like the film I got quite a bit.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Lone Ranger (1/17/2014)

1-17-2014TheLoneRanger The best thing that can be said about Gore Verbinski’s big budget adaptation of The Lone Ranger is “it had its moments.”  There are many who wouldn’t even grant it that, but it does.  I think it’s a rather frustrating film because I can kind of see the skeleton of a good movie buried somewhere in it but its outweighed by a lot of problems.  I think the biggest problem is that the original radio and TV show that the film is based on is not and never was very good and certainly wasn’t the right source material for a massive blockbuster in 2013.  I think the image of a masked gunfighter is just kind of lame and I don’t think many people under 60 really associate with the character one way or another.  I also think the film was hampered by a desire to recreate whatever magic had been captured by the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which is a dubious goal in the first place because that franchise got old fast and is even more misguided because the style just doesn’t match the setting very well.  The biggest fallout of this approach is Johnny Depp’s performance, which I found to be simply grating on almost every level.

However, the Lone Ranger license and the POTC spirit do course through the film during its strongest moment: a really fun chase/shootout thing across two moving trains set to the William Tell Overture that works both as an action climax and as an elaborate Buster Keaton tribute.  If Gore Verbinski had managed to maintain that kind of energy throughout the film and turned it into a sort of highly visual screwball comedy he might have been on to something.  Instead, what he’s made is a very slow and almost boring mess of a movie for most of its running time.  For most of its second act it feels like it’s just frittering away time as it goes down what is at its heart a pretty formulaic story about a hero’s origin.  That it goes down a bunch of other strange paths like the inclusion of a weird frame story does not help its cause either.  So at the end of the day I can’t completely dismiss the film but I can just kind of wish that its final set-piece had been turned into a short film or something.

** out of Four 

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The Wolf of Wall Street(12/25/2013)

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It took the better part of five years, but the 2008 economic recession has finally come to roost in the cinema in a big way in 2013.  Greed, excess, and decadence have coursed throughout this cinematic year whether we were witnessing lavish parties in the likes of The Great Gatsby, The Great Beauty, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Spring Breakers or watched the get rich quick schemes of idiot crumble like in American Hustle, Pain and Gain, Captain Phillips and The Bling Ring.  In many ways I feel like we were all waiting for one film to rule them all, one satire to bind them, one epic to bring it all and in its greatness top them.  Opening one week before the end of the year, Martin Scorsese just might have delivered exactly that movie: a comical biography called The Wolf of Wall Street.  A film that lives up to everything you’d expect from a Martin Scorsese movie while simultaneously subverting all of them.

The film is told from the perspective of a real life white collar criminal named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio), a young man who was training to be a stock broker in the late 80s but only worked one day on Wall Street when he was sidelined by the 1987 stock market crash.  Seeking to rebuild his career he took up residence at a Long Island penny-stock outfit, where he learned about how little regulation there was on penny stocks and about how much commission an individual broker received from selling them.  With this knowledge he started his own firm called Stratton Oakmont, where he applied his Wall Street salesmanship to the Wild West that was the penny stock trade in order to make himself extremely wealthy.  Wild decadence ruled the day at Stratton, where most of the employees were hyped up alpha males who indulged in hard drug use, illicit sex, and business practices that were far from legal.  As Belfont’s wealth multiplied his business became less and less legit, and as the movie goes on you see this enterprise come closer and closer to disaster for all involved.

Jordan Belfort is a real (and largely unapologetic) criminal who guides the viewer through his rise and fall and all the dirty little details of his wrongdoings though extensive voice over.  Does this sound like a familiar formula?  Well it should, because it’s the same basic format that Scorsese used in the films Goodfellas and Casino.  In fact I might go so far as to say that the three films form something of an unofficial trilogy in which the crime appears increasingly “legitimate” with each installment.  Scorsese is perhaps making a statement upfront by giving Jordan Belfort the same treatment that he once gave Henry Hill and Sam Rothstein, essentially saying that the white collar criminals of the world are just as much gangsters as the hoodlums that Scorsese became famous for portraying.  The only real difference between the two classes of criminals is that the crooks on Wall Street are a little less likely to straight up murder somebody than your traditional street criminal, but otherwise they’re every bit as sociopathic, lawless, and despicable.

However, that absence of violence is noteworthy, and it does result in The Wolf of Wall Street having a different tone from Scorsese’s other crime epics.  Notably this one dips way further into straight on satire than those other two films, in fact I’d argue that it’s a full-on comedy.  Not just any comedy either, in fact I’d say it’s an incredibly hilarious (albeit very dark) comedy that’s a lot more funny than most of the movies that claim to be nothing more than joke parades.  However, almost all of the comedy is in tune with the film’s other themes.  Most of the laughter is derived either from the characters’ general shamelessness or from their Caligula-esque partying and Hunter S. Thomson levels of drug use.  The opening scene, for example, depicts the characters at an office party which involves tossing midgets in Velcro outfits at a felt target.  Consider the type of mentality that would believe that such a celebration would be in any way appropriate and you’ll begin to understand the kind of people we’re dealing with here.

Leonardo Di Caprio always seems to be at his loosest and most energetic when working with Martin Scorsese, and here he also proves to be surprisingly adept with this comedic material.  He more than holds his own while trading lines with comedy veterans like Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin.  Let it also be known that Di Caprio wasn’t just cast here because Scorsese has developed such a rapport with him either; his youthful movie star qualities go a long way toward turning him into the kind of over-caffeinated salesman who could lead people into all sorts of craziness.  When he addresses his employees at the office he does so with the zeal of a self-help guru or even a cult leader.  That these people are actually following a sociopathic idiot just adds to the irony.

Scene to scene and line to line, The Wolf of Wall Street is almost an embarrassment of riches.  Damn near every minute of it is packed with some kind of brilliant line, or interesting soundtrack choice, or unexpected cinematic decision.  It’s no surprise to me that the original cut of the film was like five hours long and Scorsese had to struggle to bring it down to its current length; I’d be willing to bet that some of the material that Scorsese left on the cutting room floor was pure gold.  Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t think it was maybe a little longer than it needed to be and that it was starting to lose just a little bit of steam towards the end.  Still, the movie is only a minute longer than Casino and I suspect that if it had been filled with horses and battles and whatnot its run time would not be raising that many eyebrows.  Still, thinking of The Wolf of Wall Street as anything less than a triumph feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth.  This is a hilarious and energetic movie which proves that Martin Scorsese has no plans of going out quietly in his old age.

**** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/2/2014

White House Down (12/20/2013)

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There seems to have been some kind of sea change in the way critics look at summer blockbusters in the last year.  The new rule seems to be that critics will allow any kind of stupidity out of a summer blockbuster as long as it wears said stupidity on its sleeve and don’t try to rise above its station, and movies like Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim, and Iron Man 3 reaped the benefit of this.  Meanwhile, any blockbusters like Man of Steel and Elysium that showed even the slightest hint of ambition and sincerity weren’t allowed to get away with anything and were responded to with abject distain.  There is perhaps no greater study in this shifting standard than the varying responses to the year’s two “Die Hard in the White House” films: Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down.  By year’s end, the consensus on these two seemed to be that the former was overly “grim” and “violent” while the later was “fun.”

Now to be clear, I think both of these movies are stupid and wouldn’t recommend either, but I definitely have a lot more affection for Olympus Has Fallen.  That movie at least had a certain conviction to back up its silliness and its strong violence felt like a welcomed throwback to the shoot ‘em ups of the 80s.  In other words, it was dumb, but at least it had balls.  White House Down on the other hand, is a bunch of bullshit that’s made all the more obnoxious by the fact that it knows it’s stupid and is excited to point out said stupidity just to make this clear to the audience.  What’s more, this film falls into almost all of the usual traps that modern blockbusters fall into.  Its action has been neutered to achieve a PG-13 rating and its star (Channing Tatum) has never been convincing to me as an action hero.  He seems less like Bruce Willis and more like Ryan Reynolds, or Shia LaBeouf, or Taylor Lautner or some other overgrown tween star who might as well have been raised by the Disney/Nicolodeon/Twilight factory.  Beyond that, this is just another retarded Roland Emmerich movie.  The damn thing ends with a twelve year old girl waving off an air strike.  WTF!  When did that become acceptable?

** out of Four

The Purge (12/22/2013)

The only people involved in the production of The Purge that I want to give any kind of credit to are the people who were tasked with marketing it.  Somehow these geniuses managed to take a film which feels like it should have gone straight to DVD and somehow turned it into a moderate hit at the box office.  That they were able to do this is baffling to me, because this movie was ill-conceived on almost every level.  The film’s basic high concept, that of a world where crime is allowed to go unpunished for twelve hours every year, seems like it was dreamt up by a high school kid… possibly after smoking a lot of weed.  The film’s single set and digital photography reeks of cheapness and it’s got a bunch of plot holes like how it’s never explained why the gang trying to get into the central family’s home is so hell-bent on killing the one hobo that they were foolish enough to allow into their house before somehow forgetting about him.  On top of all that, the movie just isn’t very scary at all.  In short, the movie sucks.  Why Ethan Hawk has been providing his talent to crap like this all of a sudden is a mystery to me and I hope he makes better decisions going forward.

* out of Four

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Blackfish (12/24/2013)

12-24-2013Blackfish I wasn’t expecting much out of Blackfish, the film which was meant to expose Seaworld for the treatment of its orcas.  To be frank, I don’t really give too much of a shit about the wellbeing of animals, and documentaries about their plight (even well-made ones like The Cove and Project Nim) don’t really do it for me.  Fortunately, this one proved to be more about the danger that Seaworld was putting its human employees in.  Stylistically the film is nothing too special, but it has assembled a good lineup of witnesses and experts to act as talking heads, and the sheer quantity of people they bring in to back up their thesis is impressive.  I also like that the movie doesn’t have as much of an air of righteous indignation as these kinds of documentaries sometimes do.  The film certainly doesn’t reinvent the form, but it works well enough and certainly held my interest.

*** out of Four

The Heat (12/28/2013)

Here’s another one for the “comedies I probably would have laughed at more if I saw it with an audience but which doesn’t really hold up on video” file.  At its heart this is a take on the traditional buddy cop formula except with a gender switch.  Here it’s a female FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock and a Boston cop played by Melissa McCarthy who reluctantly team up in order to solve a case.  Bullock does create a pretty good character who mixes street smarts with poor social skills and McCarthy is at least less annoying here than she usually is.  However, this isn’t much of an action movie and the writers don’t even try to make the case that the two are investigating interesting at all.  As such this leans almost entirely on the comedic aspects of the movie and I don’t feel that’s ever realized, in part because Bollock isn’t really a comedian and can’t improvise her way through encounters with McCarthy.  It has a couple of funny side characters and did make me chuckle a few times, but for the most part I’d say it was all pretty forgettable.

** out of Four

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Only God Forgives (1/2/2014)

1-2-2014OnlyGodForgives 2011 was a somewhat lonely year for me because I felt like I was one of the only people sitting on the sidelines saying “cool it” while most of the critics lavished Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with incredible praise.  I certainly found some things to like about the movie, but I didn’t love it by any means and was a little freaked out by how many critics were hypnotized by its flashy ways.  I’ll be honest, I felt a little vindicated when the buzz coming out of Cannes about Refn’s follow-up film, Only God Forgives, ranged from negative to downright poisonous.  When it was finally released though, it had its defenders, and some of them were the same people who were with me on Drive.  Maybe this movie was the anti-Drive and this was why people were disappointed, and maybe that meant I’d like it.  Nope.  Looks like my first instinct was right, this movie is an absolute mess. 

I always maintained that Drive was style over substance, but at least it had style.  This movie has neither.  Its look is far less elegant, its violence is less memorable, and its characters are less distinct.  Pretty much everything I disliked about Drive is also turned up to eleven.  Once again Refn uses numerous shots of Ryan Gostling staring into thin air in place of any actual character development, and what little character development we do get is just silly.  The central crime family is almost cartoonishly amoral, especially Kristin Scott Thomas’ matriarch, which is a character who seems like she almost just wants to be horrible.  This is the movie I imagine when I read reviews of The Counselor, a movie so schlocky that it can’t be taken seriously but so pretentious that it can’t be enjoyed.  What the hell?

*1/2 out of Four 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(12/22/2013)

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Warning: the following review contains plot spoilers

Regular readers will know that I’m not a reader of YA literature and I’m also not overly interested in the film adaptations of YA novels.  Hell, it took me over twelve years to even see a Harry Potter movie.  Still, when the film version of The Hunger Games came out last year I did kind of get caught up in the hype and went ahead and saw the film simply to better understand what the buzz was all about.  I didn’t end up loving the film, but it was better than I thought it would be.  It had a couple elements I really liked (namely Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, some of the political allegories, the dystopic world it was set in), and a couple elements I didn’t care for at all (namely the action, the pacing, and some of its questionable production values).  Most of the things I disliked were things that could easily be smoothed over in future sequels, so I was pretty hopeful that what I’d seen could serve as the foundation for a franchise that would be better than its first installment.  The decision to replace the first film’s director with Francis Lawrence, a man who is pretty good at building worlds and helming action scenes, made me all the more excited to see where the series would go.

And yet, once the film was finally released I actually wan’t all that excited to go.  The first film had come out in early March, a week that is generally devoid of competition, and that played a big role in my decision to begrudgingly give the film a shot a couple weeks after it had opened.  This time around, Lionsgate opted to open the film in the middle of November, a time when there are probably a million other things I could be seeing.  As such I decided that I’d have to skip it.  I even stuck to that decision for five weeks, but then almost on a whim I decided that this was a little too big of a film to ignore, especially when everything I’d heard suggested that it was indeed an improvement over the original.  Besides, I needed a blockbuster to cleanse the palate in-between prestige films, so I took the plunge.  And after having seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I’ve got to say, I kind of wish I’d stuck with my guns and skipped it because it is not only not an improvement over its predecessor but it’s a substantial step backwards.

Set one year after the events of the last film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her home district and having made a new enemy in the form of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is angry that her conduct in the games last year seems to have fanned the flames of rebellion within the districts.  His hands are tied though because the people of the capital did not recognize the rebellion in her behavior and have become obsessed with the supposed romance between her and her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  To deal with this, Snow and the new gamekeeper (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) devise a plan to turn the next year’s Hunger Games into a sort of tournament of champions as a means of forcing Katniss back into the arena, where she’ll presumably be forced to do some less than popular things and then be killed in the process.

In many ways The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels less like the second part of a larger story and more like a simple sequel.  As in, the kind of sequels that used to get hastily thrown together to cash in on a film’s success back in the day when film franchises weren’t carefully planned out from the start.  Like those old-school sequels the idea seems to be less “lets further explore this world” and more “let’s take the formula from the old film and make it bigger.”  That’s going to be the backbone of my case against this film: it feels like a complete rehash.  Like the first film, it starts with Katniss in her district, then moves on to the capital where she needs to train and also solicit sponsors, and finally its second half is a fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena.  As such it retains a lot of the same flaws that hurt the original film like the fact that it wastes way too much time in the capital before getting to the arena or the fact that it’s populated with garish costumes that have entire scenes dedicated to showcasing.

Whenever the film does deviate from the formula though, it’s almost always for the worse.  For instance, the decision to have the games be populated by former players (many of whom are adults) pretty thoroughly robs the high concept of a lot of its disturbing power.  These “tributes” seem less like scared masses being forced into a bad situation and more like the freakish “stalkers” who hunted down Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.  When these guys get killed in the game it feels less like the result of a brutal society and more like a bunch of bad guys simply getting killed off.  In fact, for the most part, the environment seems to be a much bigger threat to Katniss and her allies in this Hunger Games than any of her actual opponents.

I also thought that the character motivations in this installment were all over the place.  For example, early in the film the Peeta character is given an opportunity to not participate in the games, but chooses to anyway in order to spare the Haymitch Abernathy from having to compete.  Why?  Haymitch is an old drunk, what in the world would make Peeta want to sacrifice his own safety in order to save him?  I suppose it could have been that Peeta was part of the conspiracy that is revealed in the film’s final moments (more on that later), even then he should have had some kind of explanation for this sudden nobility because it sure doesn’t fit with the narrative that he and Katniss are trying to sell to the wider population of this world.  And speaking of people who are inexplicably trying to save other people who they seemed to previously express no affection for, why is Katniss so hell bent on saving Peeta?  She spends most of the movie’s first third expressing that she’s just not that into him and that their supposed romance is just an act, but then at about the halfway point she starts to seem downright devoted to him and starts insisting over and over again that he “needs” to survive the games.  This is odd firstly because, well, it kind of makes him look like a punk bitch, and secondly because she’s the one who is a symbol of resistance in this world and is clearly more important to the world than he is.

As for that twist ending… I fucking hate it.  Firstly I think it’s illogical.  That the conspirators keep the whole thing a secret from Katniss is itself ridiculous and kind of diminishes Katniss as this resourceful hero.  Also, their whole plan seems to be entirely predicated on Katniss making a spur of the moment decision without any kind of prodding.  I have no idea how they knew that that was going to happen, especially when one considers that that thing that she does which makes the big escape is kind of ridiculous.  Arrows can’t generally be shot that high, and if that dome is going to completely shatter over that… it’s just silly.  It’s also abrupt.  It felt like the games were only barely afoot when I looked at my watch and saw that the movie was almost over.  I thought to myself “how are they going to wrap all this up in so short a time.”  Needless to say, I was not impressed when the answer was more or less “they aren’t.”  Instead they do this convoluted and rushed plot twist that is conveyed largely through this brief dialogue scene at the end which feels more like a complete cliffhanger than like a portent for what’s to come.  At least end on some kind of shot of the people marching in the street or something, don’t just cut from Katniss crying like a baby over her non-boyfriend to some cheesy looking logo.

I will give new director Francis Lawrence credit for one thing: he does seem to have a slightly better grasp on how to film an action scene than Gary Ross did.  He also seems to have been given a slightly higher budget to work with, so the film generally does look a little better than the last one, but the improvement isn’t necessarily by leaps and bounds by any means.  If anything it kind of makes me think I was too hard on Ross, at least he seemed to have a better grasp of how to pace his time in the Hunger Games arena.  In fact, I’d say that this movie generally gave me a better appreciation of that first film insomuch as it showed how everything about that movie could have potentially been done worse.  Even Jennifer Lawrence seems to be phoning it in here so that she can focus her energies on her David O. Russell projects.  I remember liking her a lot in the last film, but her performance here seems to be off, there are definitely some rather brutal line readings here that she seems to botch.

More than anything, this movie’s biggest sin is that it just never seems to justify its own existence.  Most of the pleasure I derived from the first film came from being introduced to this crazy fantasy world.  Here we learn very little new about that world and instead just see all the stuff we saw in the first film all over again.  What’s more, the story itself just seems to be treading water and setting things up for the third film, which is presumably where all the real action is going to be.  Hell, pretty much everything that’s really interesting about this installment seems to be happening off screen.  I would have much rather seen the rebellion being built out in the districts or seen the conspirators come up with their elaborate plan to help said rebellion than spend the whole installment watching Katniss lackadaisically replay her last adventure while being stuck in the dark about all the good stuff.  All in all, I think this movie is kind of a disaster.  I was about as let down by it as one could possibly be by a film that one waited five weeks to bother going to.

*1/2 out of Four

Inside Llewyn Davis(12/21/2013)

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The Coen brothers have been called many things: “playful provocateurs,” “consummate nihilists,” “true originals,” etc.  One title that has perhaps been conspicuously missing is “a belated voice of their generation.”  Having been born in 1954 and 1957 respectively, the Coens were born right in the middle of the baby boom, a fact that’s become increasingly clear in their films as of late.  Their last two films were, after all, a remake of a John Wayne film and an autobiographical film about (among other things) what it was like to listen to Jefferson Airplane on a transistor radio during Hebrew classes.  Looking elsewhere in their filmography you see all sorts of tributes to the pop culture of their youth including film noirs, Ealing comedies, and American roots music.  Hell, even the film of theirs that is most beloved by younger generations (The Big Lebowski) heavily involves the rantings of an old Vietnam veteran.  As such, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d one day make a film about the ground zero of Baby Boomer culture: the Grenich Village folk scene.  And with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, they’ve done just that.

Set in 1961 (shortly before folk music entered the mainstream) the film unsurprisingly examines the life of a man named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac).  Davis is a talented, but not overly successful, folk singer who’s recently struggled to establish a solo career after the death of a former collaborator named Mike Timlin.  Davis’ life is a bit of a mess; he has no permanent residence and must crash at other people’s homes every night, which is difficult because he’s a prickly character who tends to burn every bridge that’s extended to him.  A former lover of his named Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) has recently told him that she’s pregnant, but she wants nothing more to do with him and is now with another folkie named Jim (Justin Timberlake), who’s friendlier and potentially more successful, but perhaps not Davis’ artistic equal.  Things really start to go wrong for Davis one morning after he wakes up at one of the apartment he’s crashing in and accidentally allows the owner’s cat to escape right as the door locks behind him.  This forces Davis to carry the cat along with him as he goes on a sort of three day odyssey to put his life back together or die trying.

More than anything, Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a companion piece to the Coen brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man, which was a movie that took me a couple watches to really “get” but which I’ve come to really like.  I don’t just say that because both films are set in the 60s and have similarly dry tones, rather, I say that because they seem to be two sides of the same cynical coin.  A Serious Man was about a man who has a whole lot of bad things happen to him even though he was a fundamentally good person.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a little different; its main character probably isn’t a monster or anything, but he does a have a rather self-destructive personality.  I don’t mean “self-destructive” in the sense of drugs or booze, more that pretty much everything he touches seems to turn to shit because he makes a lot of selfish decision and tends to push away those who might otherwise be helpful to him out of a sort of misguided sense of pride.  If Larry Gopnik’s plight in A Serious Man was Job-like, Llewyn Davis’ problems seem almost karmic in nature, a fact that’s sort of backed up by the film’s cyclical structure.

I wouldn’t call the film a “musical,” because that label implies that the music more than anything is the draw and I don’t think that’s the case here.  However, songs are played in their entirety at certain points and it is also essential to the film’s plot that the audience believes that  Llewyn Davis to be a credible talent.  As such the Coens have brought in T. Bone Burnett, the architect of the Grammy winning soundtrack to the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou, to make sure the music here is up to snuff.  I wouldn’t call this film’s soundtrack a revelation per se, and I don’t think it will have quiet the commercial success of the last Coen/Burnett production, in part because I think 60s folk music has been mined a bit more heavily over the years than 30s bluegrass.  That said, the material that Burnett has found works well in the movie and has created a very believable repertoire for Llewyn Davis.  Credit should also be given to Oscar Issac and the other actors for performing these songs with gusto.

Inside Llewyn Davis is simply one of the best depictions of the “starving artist” I’ve seen.  It does a really good job of generating a certain amount of sympathy for its lead character even as he does unlikable things.  I also really like the way it recreates the 60s without glamorizing it and making it seem “groovier” than it really was.  Also, while it’s one of the Coens’ less overtly comedic films, the brothers’ signature wit does underlie every scene of the film and keeps it entertaining even though it has a pretty cold and quiet tone.  The Coen brothers are so consistently strong that they can sometimes be taken for granted.  It’s easy to see a movie like this and simply declare “they’ve done it again,” and then move on.  That perhaps does a disservice to their accomplishments.  Movies like this are not easy to make and they deserve to be appreciated when they come along.

**** out of Four