Cinema Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside+Llewyn+Davis+Cat

 

Dir/Wri: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  • Pro: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Terence Winter • DOP: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

The Coen brothers are undoubtedly among contemporary cinema’s master storytellers, and Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of their best work.

Set in the folk scene of New York in the early 1960s, their story focuses on Llewyn Davis, a musician. The death of his partner, Mike Timlin, leaves him to pursue a solo career, but it’s not easy to make a living and keep one’s artistic integrity. So, Llewyn trudges through wintry New York, looking for a place to keep his stuff, rest his head, and get some money. He even takes care of a cat.

Joel Coen admits that the film doesn’t really have a plot. The Coens take their simple premise and imbue it with the usual pleasures of their impressive oeuvre: great characters, brilliant dialogue, stylish shooting and good music.

Inside Llewyn Davis rests on the acclaimed filmmaking duo’s skills as writers. Their clever and frequent use of repetition in their writing makes even an elevator attendant  — “I have to run the elevators” —  a memorable character. They consider every speaking part capable of offering some pleasure, and each of their films benefits from an array of unique characters.

Here, these include John Goodman playing talkative jazz musician Roland Turner, who ambles about with two canes, and whose ramblings conceal a rather menacing character. Jerry Greyson plays Mel Novikoff, who struggles to manage Legacy, a record label. Max Casella plays Pappi Corsicato, who runs the Gasoline Café, where Llewyn performs. He’s not sure about folk music’s appeal, but he’s happy to take sexual favours from female musicians in return for arranging performances at the café.

Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play Jim and Jean, an act that performs at Pappi’s place, and they also help out their friend Llewyn. Timberlake provides one of the film’s highlights with his rendition of the ridiculously catchy “Please Mr Kennedy”. Jean’s abrasive attitude to Llewyn stems from their complicated history together. This conflict really drives the film before Llewyn leaves New York for Chicago.

Oscar Isaacs, as Llewyn Davis, is on-screen for almost the full length of the film. It’s a difficult role, as Llewyn remains aloof, cut off from his friends, and difficult to get on with. He takes his music seriously and wants others to take him seriously as a musician. On paper, Llewyn’s character doesn’t seem appealable, but Isaacs makes him likeable. It’s a great performance, matched by the excellent supporting cast.

The album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in which Don Hunstein photographed Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend, clinging to Dylan as they walk through New York’s wintry West Village, inspired the film’s distinctive look. DOP Bruno Delbonnel employs a colour palette consisting mostly of a range of greys, emphasising the bleak atmosphere in which Llewyn lives.

T-Bone Burnett scored a major hit in assembling bluegrass musicians for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here, Burnett and the Coen brothers turn to the American folk revival. The film strips the music of its associations with left-wing politics. The songs sound wonderful, but their lyrical content is questionable. One wonders what the songs mean. “You might have heard it before. It’s not new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song,” says Llewyn. He sings well, he sings passionately, but, really, what is the point of depoliticized folk music? Dylan went electric, and folk music faded from pop culture.

Folk music provides an apt area for the Coen brothers to tell their story. Folk songs, as a medium, seem lost in 1960s New York. A rendition of “The Auld Triangle” by four men clad in Aran sweaters in the Gasoline Café highlights this. Their appearance is comic. Their apparel and their music are out of sync with the broader social changes hinted at in the film. Producer Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) “sees very little money” in what Llewyn has to offer as a musician.

What matters in folk music, it seems, is not so much the meaning of the lyrics and the origins of the songs, but the quality of the performance, the singing and the musicianship. In this way, folk music provides an apt analogy to the success of the Coen brothers, whose movies are frequently self-referential in setting out the import of the story they tell. They usually send up their stories as being just for the sake of telling an amusing story. The Big Lebowski features The Stranger telling a tale about the Dude. In Burn after Reading, the CIA are quite unsure what to take from the events reported to them. Inside Llewyn Davis features Ulysses, a cat that escapes from an apartment in which Llewyn stays. The cat’s reappearance links certain scenes and events, but one probably shouldn’t read too much into it.

Circular and serendipitous, Inside Llewyn Davis is a gentler, yet no less accomplished, addition to the Coen brothers’ body of work, which continues to evoke admiration.

John Moran

15A (See IFCO for details)
104  mins
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24th January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Hangover Part III

THE HANGOVER PART III

DIR:  Todd Phillips WRI: Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin  PRO: Daniel Goldberg, Todd Phillips  DOP: Lawrence Sher   ED: Jeff Groth, Debra Neil-Fisher   DES: Maher Ahmad CAST: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, John Goodman, Ed Helms

It’s a general rule of thumb that a third entry into a franchise – a threequel, if you will – rarely trumps what came before. There are more than enough examples to highlight the point; Return of the Jedi, Men In Black 3, The Godfather, Part 3. That said, however, there are those entries that skirt the middle ground in terms of quality, neither topping what came before nor lowering that which spawned it. The Dark Knight Rises, Return of the King and The Last Crusade all are more than effective at rounding out the trilogy. The Hangover was an unexpected hit. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis were all upcoming actors, brought under the direction of comedy veteran Todd Phillips. The formula wasn’t exactly inventive, but everyone was trying their best. Todd Phillips was recovering from the commercial / critical flop, School For Scoundrels, Bradley Cooper and co. were out to prove themselves in leading roles. Now, in the third instalment, it’s clear to all and sundry that everyone has moved on.

 

The manchild Alan (Zach Galifinakis) is spiralling out of control and is off his meds. In one particularly brutal scene involving a giraffe and a motorway sign, Alan is confronted by his father (Jeffrey Tambor) who suffers a heart attack mid-argument. The group agree that it’s better for Alan to stay at a mental institute. Enroute, they’re kidnapped by Las Vegas mobster Marshall (John Goodman) who tells them that Chow (Ken Jeong) has escaped prison in Thailand. Unsurprisingly, Doug (Justin Bartha) is held hostage while the others are ordered to find Chow and bring him back. It’s an interesting enough premise and it’s clear that Phillips is trying to break the mould with the third instalment. However, the reality is is that there shouldn’t have been a sequel or a threequel. The first Hangover worked perfectly on its own. It was neat and lean and had a wholly-contained story. There was no room from pushing it out beyond itself and yet, here we are.

 

It’s clear that Bradley Cooper has grown in stature and ability since the first Hangover. Anyone who’s seen Place Beyond The Pines and Silver Linings Playbook will know that Cooper is finally coming into his own. Galifinakis and Helms haven’t had the same luck, career-wise, but both are happily ploughing their own furrow. When brought together for this, it’s clear the chemistry is still there and it’s infectiously funny to watch them squabble and bicker amongst themselves. Nothing in their interactions is forced or unnatural, yet everything outside of it – the plot, the premise – is the exact opposite. Ken Jeong’s role is expanded to a greater degree in this instalment; something that could have saved the second film from its fate. As chaos personified, Jeong’s one-liners and general terrorising is funny in places, but it relies heavily on shock value. It can be tiresome in places, but the film has a brisk pace that means you can’t focus on it for too long. Goodman’s role is pretty much exposition and it’s a real shame. He’s proven time and again that he is a capable comedic actor that can do these smaller roles. Here, however, he’s criminally underused and the film is lesser for it.

 

Each of the posters and the official synopsis all underline the fact that this is the end of the trilogy. Going in, you’re looking forward to seeing them tie up the story and finally draw a line underneath it. There’s a sense of freedom in that, that they can go anywhere with it as there’ll be nothing beyond it. However, as the films wears on, it becomes clear that this isn’t the end. In fact, the final five minutes of the film state this in unequivocal terms and that feels like a cheat to the audience. Phillips’ attempt to move the comedy towards action comedy works for the most part, however it goes into some very dark territory that falls flat most of the time. Overall, The Hangover Part III is reasonably entertaining if you go in with lowered expectations.

 

Brian Lloyd

99 mins
The Hangover Part III is released on 17th May 2013

The Hangover Part III – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Flight

 
DIR:Robert Zemeckis • WRI: John Gatins • PRO: Laurie MacDonald, Cherylanne Martin, Walter F. Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis • DOP: Don Burgess • ED: Jeremiah O’Driscoll • DES:Nelson Coates • CAST: Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood

It’s rare to see a mainstream studio release as wildly schizophrenic as Robert Zemeckis’ maddeningly inconsistent Flight. It constantly flits between genres – serious addiction drama, black comedy, wacky stoner comedy, legal thriller, romance, aviation disaster thriller etc… For a while, the film’s offbeat tone is interesting, and threatens to do surprising things with its familiar setups. Alas, the film doesn’t coalesce into a satisfying whole.

 

Denzel Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, whom we meet indulging in post-coital alcohol and cocaine right before he takes command of a commercial flight. After sneaking a few more vodkas when the plane reaches cruising altitude, he decides to leave things in the hands of his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) while he takes a nap. Unfortunately, a mechanical failure sends the plane into freefall and Whip is forced to make a miraculous emergency landing.

 

Said emergency landing is the film’s major set piece, and it represents the film’s first-act inciting incident. And it’s wonderfully directed – tense, coherent and surprising. Indeed it might be one of the better spectacle moments from recent mainstream cinema. It’s afterwards that the film shoots off in altogether less accomplished directions.

 

Despite the media hailing him as a hero, Whip is forced to confront his substance abuse issues after a toxicology report shows-up a predictably high blood alcohol level. Lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) is called in by the pilot’s union to try and protect Whip during the inevitable investigation. Meanwhile, Whip also meets recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and the two hit it off. Oh, and John Goodman plays a cartoonish drug dealer for some reason.

 

The fact that the film descends into broad farce every time Goodman is on screen is indicative of one of Flight’s major problems – it simply never settles on what it wants to be. As Whitaker’s situation becomes more desperate, and his addiction situation spirals out of control, it finally seems as if we’re about to be granted a familiar yet dark and uncompromising addiction study. Whit increasingly seems beyond help, and appears destined to be consumed by his self-destructive nature. Is it possible that the film is going to bypass convention and give us a genuinely devastating look at substance addiction?

 

Given the presence of militant sentimentalist Zemeckis (he of Forrest Gump and Castaway fame – Back to the Future is but a distant memory) in the director’s chair, it’s no spoiler to say that the film wearily conforms to crowd-pleasing formula. What’s most disappointing about this is that the film would undoubtedly have been more interesting had it tackled its themes and characters in a more confrontational manner. A climactic courtroom scene, for example, teases a potentially provocative and amoral ending. A redemptive reversal, alas, guarantees there’s no such luck.

 

The cast do relatively good job given the limiting material, and the magnificent first act set piece and a few moments of brief insight mean Flight is by no means worthless. It’s well-paced – 140 minutes fly by, if you’ll excuse the pun – and some moments of dark comedy are genuinely amusing. But a crippling identity crisis and reversion to sentimentality ensure that overall it is so much less satisfying than it could have, should have, would have been. Flight all-too-often comes crashing down when it should really be soaring.

Stephen McNeice

15A (see IFCO website for details)

138 mins

Flight is released on 1st February 2013

Flight – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Trouble with the Curve

DIR: Robert Lorenz • WRI: Randy Brown  PRO: Clint Eastwood, Robert
Lorenz, Michele Weiser • DOP:  Tom Stern • ED: Joel Cox, Gary Roach • DES:
James J Murakami  • Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake,
John Goodman

When Clint Eastwood stepped out in front of the camera for 2008’s
excellent Gran Torino (which he, of course, also directed), it was
assumed that it was to be his acting farewell, and given how memorable
a character Walt Kowalski was, it is easy to see why.

Indeed, the man himself had intended to stay behind the camera (he has
directed Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar in the meantime), but the
postponement of his planned A Star Is Born remake with Beyonce Knowles
has freed him to star in his long-term collaborator Robert Lorenz’s
debut feature Trouble with the Curve.

In many ways, Clint’s involvement with this film sees him coming full
circle, because whereas it has now become the norm to expect him to
direct rather than act, Trouble with the Curve finds him acting in a
film that he didn’t also helm for the first time since Wolfgang
Petersen’s In the Line of Fire back in 1993.

The four-time Academy Award winner stars as Gus, a veteran baseball
scout who is under pressure to deliver the goods on his latest
scouting mission, as he silmutaneously attempts to hide his
deteriorating eye sight from his employers. Concerns about his
condition leads to his boss, and best friend, Pete Klein (John
Goodman) sending Gus’ high-flying lawyer daughter (Amy Adams) along
with him on his latest trip.

It is here that we get a real sense of the estrangement between the
two, and as they struggle to get along, Justin Timberlake crops up as
a former hot-shot college player turned Boston Red Sox scout, who
re-connects with his one-time recruiter Gus, as well as becoming a
potential love interest for Adams’ Mickey.

To compare Eastwood’s performance here to what we saw four years ago
in Gran Torino is perhaps unfair, as it would be asking a lot to
expect him to deliver the goods to the same extent this time around.
It doesn’t shy away from dealing with serious and sensitive subject
matters, though, as Gus’ inability to catch the action as it happens
become a central point in the drama.

Lorenz, who has worked on a total of 16 Eastwood films in a variety of
roles, approaches the job of directing in the same kind of unfussy and
leisurely manner that has become a trademark of his mentor in the past
few decades. There are also some nice touches to Randy Brown’s script,
but it does suffer from having a somewhat predictable and unremarkable
story.

However, if you are an Eastwood fan (and despite his bizarre episode
with an empty chair a few months ago at a Republican Party Convention,
a large number of people are), it is hard not to find some sort of
charm in the way the film is played out, especially when Eastwood’s
grizzled presence is balanced out with Adams’ endless charm.

The Unforgiven star’s iconic status has been there for all to see
since the Dollars Trilogy back in the 1960s, but equally Adams is one
of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood today, and can
currently be seen in scene-stealing form in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The
Master.

Timberlake shows once again that he is a very solid screen actor, and
it is refreshing to see that his character is the one with the
supporting romantic angle, as that is a burden that is so often left
at the door of an actress. Goodman is fresh from an excellent role of
his own in Ben Affleck’s Argo, and you are left to wonder why himself
and Eastwood haven’t worked together before now, as they have a very
easy chemistry with each other.

With small but pivotal characters also played by Matthew Lillard, Bob
Gunton and Robert Patrick, Trouble with the Curve never stretches
itself too far, and if it is a long way from the classic Clint of the
past, it is still something of a pleasure to see the great man on the
big screen once again.

Daire Walsh

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

111 mins
Trouble with the Curve  is released on 30th November 2012

Trouble with the Curve – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Argo

DIR: Ben Affleck • WRI: Chris Terrio • PRO: Ben Affleck, George Clooney,Grant Heslov  DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: William Goldenberg • DES: Sharon Seymour • CAST:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Michael Cassidy

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining, if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called ‘Moses’, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in ‘exotic locations’ for a sci-fi B-movie, called ‘Argo’. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the ‘bullshit business’ while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the ‘disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling’ role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details) 

120 mins

Argo is released on 9th November 2012

Argo –  Official Website

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Cinema Review: Red State

Kevin Smith in movie-that-isn't-a-comedy shock

DIR/WRI: Kevin Smith • PRO: Jonathan Gordon • DOP: David Klein • ED: Kevin Smith • DES: Cabot McMullen • CAST: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Michael Angarano

Since the heyday of Clerks and Mallrats, director Kevin Smith has become somewhat of a cult figure in his own right, utilising social media to perfection to ensure that he is never off the radar of fans and critics alike. Whether or not you’re an avid fan of his movies, you will doubtless have heard of them, or the man himself, as he proves himself to be the master of media. But beneath the tweets about sex, getting stoned, or his wife’s breasts, lies an incredibly savvy business man who understands the mounting importance of the media, particularly social media. As such, despite the inevitable critical whining, it’s impossible to stifle a smile when you see his Twitter username (ThatKevinSmith) appearing on the poster for his latest cinematic offering Red State.

Red State is Smith’s foray into the ever-popular horror genre, with some heavy political undertones. The script is also written by Smith, and has been in development for some time, as hype has built to breaking point, making this one of the most eagerly anticipated horror movies of 2011. We follow a group of teens who follow an online invitation for sex, but encounter a group of religious fundamentalists who have a slightly more sinister agenda than what the teens had in mind.

Red State brings the horror genre back to its roots. It is a tense, and gruelling experience which is sure to shock, but for all the right reasons. Here we have a movie which portrays something truly horrific to us, but that something is already taking root in our society. Horror is a genre which plays on societal fears, and explodes them, taking what we often feel to be safe, and making it unsafe. Here, the fear is the internet, and the notion of religion taken to the extremes. These are common motifs in horror movies, but here for the first time, they are played out in a believable way, one which makes an impact on the audience long after the credits roll.

This is not the finest movie you’ll see all year, and often contains some slivers of questionable acting (Kyle Gallner that means you) as well as some dialogue that is over-done. It is however, one of the most unexpectedly affecting movies of the year. Smith is truly the new master of satire and the media, and his invitation to members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church to attend a screening verifies his God-like status. Smith may be a cult icon, but here he proves himself more than worthy of the title. Here the horror genre is utilised to perfection. Smith knew what he wanted to say, and the horror genre is the ideal way to get this message across.

Red State is undoubtedly the smartest movie Smith has ever made, and shows a newly developed understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking on every level. His tongue-in-cheek nod to Twitter on the movie’s poster shows an acknowledgement of the media’s propensity to violence, but also knowledge of people’s trust in social media, he knows that people will find him through his username, and that he will then hold them in the palm of his typing hand. Here is political satire at its subtle finest, and critics who claim that he is rotting his own directing brain with chemicals will ultimately find their way to Twitter, and may even enjoy the ride.

Ciara O’Brien

Rated 18 (seeIFCO websitefor details)

Red State is released on 30th September 2011

Red State – Official Website

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