Inside Llewyn Davis Movie Review 0 125

inside-llewyn-davis-movie-review

No one makes movies like the Coen bros. Their innate sense of comedic timing, their ability to create worlds that feel both quirky and real as well as characters and dialogue that stay with you, they are masters of their craft. Their latest singular offering is the music drama Inside Llewyn Davis, a wonderfully melancholic, nostalgic and often hilarious tale of the week in the life of a talented musician in 1960s New York who is on the cusp of making it but never quite getting there.

It stars Oscar Isaac as the titular musician, an inherently unsympathetic character whom we nevertheless care about thanks to the brilliant writing by the brothers Coen and the performance of Isaac, bringing a soulful humanity to the character that makes him as fascinating to watch as he is strangely enjoyable to be around.

Throughout their career the Coens have managed to effortlessly flit between serious and offbeat; from the dark Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men to the more light-hearted Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they’re nothing if not diverse. This is perhaps closer to their underrated 2009 effort A Serious Man than anything else they’ve made in terms of tone and its insular, some might even say innately unlikeable leading character who, whether physically or emotionally, seems closed off from the world even as he tries his best be part of it.

Thanks to the Coens’ comfortingly eclectic array of characters – played by newcomers to their films like Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan to familiar faces like stalwart John Goodman – and a script that somehow makes something as simple as asking to stay on a friend’s couch or keeping track of a pet cat entertaining, the film is a joy to sit through from start to finish but works on more than just the level of quirkiness for which it so often aims. It’s funny in a way only the Coens can achieve, not only with their inimitable dialogue but their moments of comedic absurdism and even whimsy that, in lesser hands, may come off as irksome.

Much like a lot of their films, it’s one that will lend itself very much to rewatches so that you can pick up on all the little details you can feel are in there but may have missed on first viewing, especially considering how notoriously particular they are with their dialogue. Even so, on first viewing there’s much to love, from its absolutely stunning cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) to the fantastic performances, frequently hilarious dialogue and that beautifully achieved vein of melancholia that runs throughout it.

And that’s before we even get to the music. Produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, its pre-Dylan folk soundtrack – based on the music of Dave Van Ronk and largely sung by the cast in full-length i.e. more than just a bit of the chorus, as we often find – sounds sublime. From the longing and hopeful “Fare Thee Well” to the hilarious novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” it’s one of those films where the soundtrack is just as effective within as it is on its own.

The film takes you on a strange little episodic musical journey, even if its only between the couches of friends and acquaintances, “in the five boroughs who isn’t pissed at me,” as he despondently describes it. Underneath the surface there’s a darkness to the film, a palpable sense of morose disappointment of a clearly talented musician never quite achieving the level of success promised by the American dream.

The Coen bros. have done it again. A magnificent mix of drama, comedy, music, depth and whimsy all rolled up into something that looks beautiful and sounds even better. They’ve created another instantly iconic film that’s somehow intrinsically linked to what they’ve made before but also wholly unique and one that will leave you pondering for days after.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 530

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 556

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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