The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

My apologies for a lack of content this month. It’s been a rough May. With all that’s going on right now I’m surprised I’m even this sane. I sincerely hope my fellow bloggers and readers have been holding up okay and doing whatever they can to stay healthy, positive and productive/creative.

The one thing I wanted to make sure I kept up with this month is the Actor Profile feature, particularly as I missed out on the first two months this year. This month’s SJP is a good example of what happens when you gamble and select a movie you’ve never seen before. This crime noir from the early 2000s is a fairly obscure title, even within the context of the Coens’ filmography. All I knew going in is that this movie features a very young Scarlett Johansson, at something like 15 years old, and that she isn’t a star in it. As it turns out, the part is barely above a cameo appearance. Still, for however short-lived her appearance is, the role is narratively important and it’s fun to see her in a Coen brothers movie before fame came a-knockin’ on her door. (She would later appear in her second Coen brothers movie, the 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!)

Scarlett Johansson as Rachel ‘Birdy’ Abundas in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There*

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong. (IMDb)

Character Background: Birdy is a minor supporting character who ends up having a major impact on the main character of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in 1940s Santa Rosa, California — a man barely present in his own life. The teenage daughter of alcoholic lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), Birdy is a typical high school student who hasn’t set her sights on any particular career path just yet, though she thinks she might want to become a veterinarian.

She might also have a talent for the piano, but who could really say? Not Ed, that’s for sure, who can’t distinguish a classical Beethoven sonata from a warm-up exercise. Birdy has a strange effect on Ed, the man who never talks. When he first comes across her at a Christmas party thrown at the department store where his wife (Frances McDormand) works, he’s immediately entranced. Drawn to her beauty, sure, but also to the beauty of the music. Birdy is the walking manifestation of hope for someone as hopeless as Ed. Once his wife is sent to jail he finds himself spending more time with her, and through major fault of his own assumes — fantasizes, ultimately — a gifted pianist with great potential, whose career he imagines himself managing. It’s all hogwash of course; he’s not only old enough to be her father but there’s a fundamental misperception of who each other really is that makes this relationship dynamic both amusing and awkward, something that tends to come to a head in that bizarro car ride scene.

What she brings to the movie: Birdy may be more of a plot device than a three-dimensional character but Johansson, at just 15 years old, already has presence and here she’s wielding that powerfully seductive voice to her character’s advantage, turning a fairly typical teenager into a symbol of temptation. She also just fits in to the 1940s aesthetic, her face cherubic and hair in a short bob and the conservative use of make-up allowing her natural beauty to shine through.

Key Scene: One of but a few pretty bizarre forks in the road in the second half of this increasingly surreal movie. Oh, heavens to Betsy, it’s all just a weird scene misunderstanding.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.23.51 PM

Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Fargo (1996)

Get the heck out of here, August. Take all your bad vibes with you. Not that this month has been a particularly bad one for watching movies, new and old alike. But, sheesh, would you just please get out of the way so the fall season can begin? And I’m looking forward to more than just good movies as well as lower temperatures — it’s soon the beginning of football and later, the basketball season. And then, the inevitable cold grip of winter. (Although I will say I don’t get to look forward to anything like my friend in the north Ruth does on that front.) Watching this movie today gave me a taste of what she may be dealing with within the next few months, so my thoughts go out to her. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the conditions found in

Today’s food for thought: Fargo.

Chilling out since: Friday, April 5, 1996

[DVD]

So Fargo is an odd one. Not purely because of the content — it is quirky and at times pretty uncomfortable, no doubt about it — but owing more to the fact I could barely react after finally undertaking the journey. High production values, coupled with the Coens’ affinity for quirking out and all that are qualities that I admire about it, but if I have a duty to actually love what I’ve watched, then I’ll have to force the feeling.

And yet, I’m not comfortable saying I dislike it either. I’m frustratingly indifferent to the whole thing. Beyond the peculiar accents that implied lots of vocal coaching for the principals, the wood chipper murder scene and Frances McDormand’s unflappable Marge Gunderson, there’s not much about Fargo that will stay with me. To further muddy the waters, I can’t disagree with its success at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, being nominated for an impressive seven awards and winning two — one for its original screenplay and another honoring McDormand’s lead performance. In fact I see the film just as deserving of a gold statue for its subtle yet effective production design. That’s the trifecta of achievements that has earned Fargo its reputation over the last two decades, at least as I see it.

Do I blame the reputation itself for my own lackluster experience? Maybe a little, but then that kind of argument feels more like an excuse, an object for me to hide behind because     . . . well, you know, popular opinion can be a hell of a tide to swim against. Fargo is so very Coen-esque, but give me The Big Lebowski any day over the farcical trials of a few northern Minnesotans. Of the two dark comedies, bowling alleys made for a more compelling visual motif than a snow-covered highway. But I get the point. Fargo was never intended to uplift and inspire the kind of ‘happy’ laughter The Dude and his oddball friends do. Fargo is downbeat, its amusement derived from the ineptitude of many of its characters. That and the sheer hopelessness of the winter season.

When Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a desperate car dealer, hires a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife in an elaborate scheme to extort nearly one million dollars from her wealthy father (his boss), Wade (Harve Presnell), things go pear-shaped for the criminals, leaving Jerry in an awkward position between them and Wade, who is unaware the actual ransom is only $80,000. Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (a particularly nasty Peter Stormare) are transporting the wife when they’re unexpectedly pulled over by a state trooper just outside of Brainerd. The encounter turns ugly quickly when an enraged Gaear shoots and kills the officer and hunts down the unfortunate kids who happen upon the scene moments later.

“Looks like a triple homicide,” deduces a curious Marge the next day. And, yah, I get what is going on here, too. I’m supposed to be mesmerized by her very un-mesmerizing attire, a uniform of brown and gray, vivid when set against a never ending sea of white. No doubt about it, her presence is visually significant, a kind of modest icon who seizes every opportunity to provide the film (or more critically, viewers) a modicum of reason. Her intuition at the scene of this odd crime scene suggests that, aside from her doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the coalition for reason in Fargo is considerably weak.

I have a high threshold when it comes to films that are deliberately weird. I get along great with Lebowski, find something thrillingly disturbing in A Serious Man, and even accept characters who are meant to be enjoyed less than they are pitied, people like Llewyn Davis. The Coens managed to at least pique my curiosity even if their collaborative effort failed to fully engage me. Emotionally I was kept at an arm’s reach as I witnessed a crime story devolving into a mere battle of wits between Officer Gunderson and that slimy little Jerry fella. Performances from Buscemi and Stormare helped boost my enthusiasm — more so the former than the latter — and offset this sense of duty I felt for having to put up with Macy’s sniveling little scumbag of a car dealer. (Credit where credit is due, though: my frustration with his character is once again derived from his high caliber acting; if he weren’t good he’d have elicited no reaction from me at all.)

For a film that has been as lauded as it has over the years I exited feeling more or less unchanged, as if I were watching the movie with glazed-over eyes. I kind of feel guilty. While I will forever maintain that Fargo was robbed of a production design award — saying I exited feeling unchanged isn’t quite accurate actually, I just felt cold and lonely at the end — I feel similarly robbed, with expectations perhaps unreasonably elevated to insurmountable heights given its reputation as “an American classic.” What did I miss on my first visit? I suspect I’m going to have to go back and watch again because now the guilt is starting to feel a little more like paranoia.

Recommendation: Fargo is the Coen brothers at perhaps their most idiosyncratic. This is a production filled to the brim with strong performances and the filmmakers’ penchant for finding comedy in the funereal. Aside from McDormand’s policewoman I feel like there’s not much to recommend about this film, despite everything I have ever heard about it. But maybe I just need to sit down and give it another chance. Not exactly a prospect I’m looking forward to though. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: The snow plow that drives past the motel at the end of the film was not part of the script. Signs in the area warned motorists not to drive through due to filming, but a state employee ignored them.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Inside Llewyn Davis

inside_llewyn_davis___poster_minimalist_by_jorislaquittant-d6x84bd

Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

“A folk singer with a cat. Is that part of your act? Every time you hit a C-major, does he puke a hairball?”

For whatever it’s worth, this line delivered by John Goodman’s character was intended to hurt Llewyn Davis’ feelings, not the cat’s. I suppose if the poor feline had to audition for its (substantial) role as Llewyn’s traveling pants, it probably managed to develop a thick skin (fur?) and wasn’t quite as sensitive as all the other Garfield-looking actors who didn’t get the part.

If that’s not a strange enough introduction to throw you completely off-balance, then you definitely need to see this film. Somehow the intro will seem more fitting and less like a rambling filler paragraph. The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) step forward into the limelight once again with a darkly comical week-in-the-life of a permanently embittered yet talented musician who constantly fumbled in his attempts to make something of himself against the backdrop of the folk music scene in 1960s New York City. If Greenwich Village (largely a residential borough of west Lower Manhattan) was the rose garden in which young artists blossomed, Llewyn would be the thorn of thorns growing on the tallest rose stem. Antisocial and abrasive, the character is not the kind one would immediately associate with potentially award-winning storytelling.

Ordinarily that presumption — that miserable characters tend to make for bad times at the movies — is a good one to keep in the back pocket; why pay money for an experience that’s going to ultimately irritate or rub you the wrong way? While that reservation is still understandable here, writing off the Coens’ latest gem as not a good film because the main character doesn’t appeal would be a mistake.

For starters, missing this film means missing out on Oscar Isaac’s sharpest performance to date, and it also means missing a chance to see/hear Justin Timberlake do some real singing. (For the readers who are choosing to stay through this review even after I have mentioned that name, I thank you kindly. And yes, I do accept tips.) In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to see this film is for the music. That the performers have a chance to incorporate their musical inclinations is surprisingly rewarding; Isaac’s voice is incredible. Timberlake is quite tolerable since his contributions are minimal, yet they endure as much as Isaac’s mopey face; and the film serves as a great showcase for Carey Mulligan’s beautiful voice as well.

However great the many musical imbuements are (and they really are something), all they do is factor into the story — a story of a struggling musician trying to be noticed in a world filled with competing interests and, perhaps, more favorable personalities. These interludes demonstrate these people at their best. When the spotlight turns off of them (particularly Llewyn) though, the Coens’ carefully constructed tone and mood — even the cityscape — seems that much darker.

Isaac portrays a character loosely based on the music and experiences of folk singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Indeed, there was no such folk singer named Llewyn Davis — a reality that is difficult to accept considering the power of Isaac’s essence. Instead, the Coen brothers drafted up a period piece so rich in detail they created real, breathing human beings; even fictitious acts like Davis, like Al Cody (Adam Driver), like duos such as Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) (who actually were based on the real-life duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray) are byproducts of a fully-realized script that epitomizes one particular point in music history.

Such is the value of the ticket into this particular Coen production: the sense of time and place. Steeped in a little corner of America that was brimming with talent in a much-overlooked genre, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer to what’s ostensibly the 60s; so much so, that the story presented comes in second to the ambience. Llewyn was once part of a duo himself, but after his friend and fellow songwriter decided to commit suicide, he has been left in an aching hollow, a dark melancholy from which he seemingly cannot awaken. His last album (which he recorded with his late friend) hasn’t sold well at all, rendering him completely broke. So he bounces from couch to couch, finding increasingly desperate ways of securing the next gig that may or may not tide him over for awhile. Llewyn doesn’t so much live as much as he exists.

On top of his real-world issues, Llewyn has a myriad of ideological problems that don’t seem to help his cause. He can’t fathom why audiences are taking to other acts more than his own; why does everything he touch seemingly fall to pieces? His jealousy of Jim and Jean might be understandable on a more personal level, and yet, for him, it’s so much more. Llewyn doesn’t like people, clearly. Painfully ironically, he has plenty of kind-hearted “friends” and acquaintances who have been trying to help him out and get him off of his feet. (Hey, at least there’s the cat. . . .he won’t help to pay rent or whatever, but, meow. . .)

The directorial duo of brothers weave a slight, if daydreaming, narrative in between rousing on-screen performances and tremendous stage presences. It’s difficult to believe Isaac and Mulligan — and, yes. . .okay, Timberlake, get in here too — are this talented, musically as well as visually. We don’t see Llewyn do much other than mope around between apartments he’s staying in, smoke cigarettes and complain; but we do meet a full cast of characters who do more than their fair share of bringing this story to life. John Goodman adds some color (as per usual) as Roland Turner, a jazz musician Llewyn meets on the road who might be more obnoxious than he is; Garrett Hedlund makes a brief appearance as Turner’s driver, cigarette un-sharing, beat-poet Johnny Five; and F. Murray Abraham plays up the big whig (or as big as they get at this point) Bud Grossman, a potential label representative Llewyn has been eyeing in Chicago, his possible ticket for getting out of all of this mess.

The Coens won’t make it easy on the viewer (after all, they did hire Justin Timberlake. . . but in all honesty, he’s nothing to worry about here). Inside Llewyn Davis suffers from a minor case of anti-hero. However, in this case, the viewer must be able to distinguish between bad person and great performance. Isaac turns in an affecting performance; arguably one of the more memorable of 2013. Capturing the drama and the anxieties of working in this kind of market during this time in this place is a task left up to Joel and Ethan Coen. And they deliver, as only they can.

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4-0Recommendation: Inside Llewyn Davis may very well appeal to far more fans of Coens’ previous work than to newcomers, but it should also have a strong sway with anyone who loves good music. Packed full of great little songs, a few of which are sung to perfection by the cast, the film is a real joy to watch unfold, despite it’s rough-around-the-edges subject and the circumstances surrounding him/it. The performances are stellar, and, unless the Oscars are completely and unabashedly fixed (maybe they are), they should receive at least some sort of recognition come February.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

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