Begin Again (2014)

★★★★

Begin Again PosterDirector: John Carney

Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo

Why do they get nine out of ten of her dollars? Those are the words that spring from the mouth of Keira Knightley’s Gretta, a talented musician with a newfound shrewdness for business economics and life in general. Her question is aimed at record label producer Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) who likely knows more about the dials on an Auto-Tune system than he does real musical verve.

But this isn’t a straightforward examination of the successes and failures of the contemporary music landscape. That is an underlying — and at times on the nose — theme, but not the film’s primary prerogative. Begin Again is more tuned into people, and how the relationships between those people unfold within a high intensity city, surrounded by an even higher intensity business.

We begin with an impressive James Corden as best friend Steve, encouraging a reluctant Gretta to get up and play one of her songs in a dingy New York City bar. She’s good, but through the murmurs and glass-smashing nobody takes much notice. Apart from Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who looks a little worse for wear. Dan, as it transpires, is a struggling record producer and former partner of the aforementioned Saul. Differing business models caused the split, a common occurrence in Dan’s life — he is also separated from his wife and bears the brunt of a friction-fuelled relationship with his daughter. Alcohol is his solution, which leads him to a dingy New York City bar.

And then we begin again, only this time our two central characters arrive imbued with backstory. The non-linear storytelling technique used early in the film is one of a few nuances implemented by director John Carney that help to maintain the freshness of what otherwise might be an occasionally dour narrative. When we first meet Gretta and Dan their individual baggage is evident, and because both Knightley and Ruffalo instantly come across empathetically, our affection greatly increases as their bad experiences are unveiled.

Dan is at odds both personally and professionally. He lives alone in a dank apartment that has probably seen more hangovers than clean bed sheets. Much to his ineffectual chagrin, his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) wears attire unsuitable for school. “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver,” is Dan’s unsavoury description. It’s a good thing Gretta is around to interject as wardrobe advisor in between bouts of album recording.

Gretta used to be outgoing and inspired until she and ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) unceremoniously severed ties. She becomes those things again when in Dan’s company, but their partnership thankfully doesn’t venture down generic romantic channels when you get the feeling it might. Carney, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has form in the genre — he helmed the much lauded indie music-drama Once, and puts the positive expertise gained from that to use here.

Ruffalo and Knightley excel individually and collectively. Ruffalo is particularly full of off-kilter charm as the scruffy music lover trying to maintain originality in an increasingly banal industry. When the actor is in his element — quirky, unfiltered and eccentric — he is really great, and he’s in his element for the duration. In a tough role to get right, Knightley manages to be genuinely likeable. It is a characterisation that can have thankless, mopey elements, however Knightley carries Gretta with realistic ambition — her talent is never really in question, just her own personal desire to work on an album — therefore we don’t have to sit through endless hurdles of self-doubt.

That being said, from a broad perspective the film does exist in a picture perfect world. Even though Dan is no longer with his wife, terrifically portrayed by Catherine Keener, the duo still have a budding relationship (in other words, they get along more than they argue). Gretta, on the day before she is set return to England, somehow finds herself playing her own song in front of the only guy willing to take a punt on her. Despite a quip about possible rainfall, the sun also always seems to be shining. However, any potential misgivings regarding circumstance play second fiddle to engaging performances and otherwise unsentimental storytelling.

Bubbling underneath all the character drama (you could say it is the film’s bassist) is a plot about the commercialisation of the music industry. Dan is the victim of this shift away from ingenuity, a notion captured in a funny yet somewhat overtly glaring scene that sees the song scout try unsuccessfully to remove wall “art” from his record label premises. “We need vision, not gimmicks,” he bemoans having just endured an endless stream of overproduced pop demos.

As an A&R man, there is also a compelling dynamic between Dan and Gretta. In an electric conversation over drinks, we can literally see Dan squirm around on his stool as he talks about compromising in order to, “Get people in [the door] before the music can do its work.” In a way Gretta is more of a purist than he, though that might be expected given she is the artist.

The proverbial ‘bad’ side of modern music is embodied by a bizarre record exec who flaunts that cocky Bradley Cooper vibe from American Hustle. Carney does afford some leeway to the idea that music and money are worst enemies by including the horrendously named Troublegum (CeeLo Green), one of Dan’s prized discoveries who still has his back. This allows for a hilarious impromptu rap scene that probably accurately reflects how CeeLo converses in real life.

The New York setting serenades the film with helping of authenticity — while doing press for the movie, Knightley spoke of how the crew adopted a guerrilla filmmaking style when shooting in back alleys and on rooftops. The songs themselves are woody and energetic, and certainly mirror Dan’s desperation to save the spirit of music. The soundtrack isn’t as earthy as something like Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Crazy Heart, but like in those films, the songs do play a part in ensuring proceedings don’t begin to flounder.

Begin Again balances carefully developed characters and musical intermissions with a somewhat stinging appraisal of how music is produced today. Gretta simply wants to write songs and release them for anyone’s consumption. She would charge as little as a dollar for her album. By the way, you can purchase Begin Again’s year-old soundtrack for £5.99 on iTunes. Huh. At least the film itself sticks to its admirable laurels.

Begin Again - Knightley & Levine

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Top 10 Films of 2014

Have you guys seen that new Star Wars trailer? Or the Jurassic Park one? How crazy was Arrow’s mid-season finale? Better than what Agents of SHIELD had to offer? Or The Flash’s showing? The Walking Dead killed more people! Dave Bautista and Léa Seydoux are in Bond 24, and it’s called Spectre – spooky! Idris Elba might be in Bond 25 – funny!

Disney and Warner Bros are releasing around seventy-one Marvel and DC films over the next decade! Unless Pete has another Middle-earth itch, The Hobbit saga finally finished! Jennifer Lawrence is the year’s highest grossing actor! And those damn North Koreans cancelled The Newsroom… at least I think that’s what happened.

Phew. Now that we’ve caught up on all of the most important things to have happened in life over the last two months, let’s take a look at the year as a whole. In July, I posted my top ten films of 2014 up until then. (You can read that here). The final whistle is about to go on the second half of the year. What, if anything, will make the cut? Oh, drama!

I’ll be sticking to UK release dates – the likes of Birdman, Foxcatcher and Selma aren’t out over here yet. I also haven’t seen Boyhood, but I reckon that’s the only significant omission. Click on any film title to read my review.

EDIT: I have now seen Boyhood. If you read my review, you’ll probably be able to guess where it would end up on this list.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. And for good reason; it’s an intelligent and engaging piece that could’ve easily gone awry. Director Doug Liman takes a chance by plucking Tom Cruise from the top of Hollywood’s good guy pile and dropping him face first on set as the slippery Major William Cage. Of course, Cruise resorts to his heroic norm soon enough, but not before the brilliant Emily Blunt gives him a few kickings.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt 2

9. The Guest

Speaking of iffy characters, this year Dan Stevens’ soldier is the pick of the bunch. The Guest is Adam Wingard’s best film to date and that is in no small part down to Stevens’ magnificent work as a mysterious visitor who somewhat miraculously charms his way into the Peterson household without much in the way of credentials. Stevens and fellow star Maika Monroe are fairly new to the big screen, and on the evidence of this retro-thriller we’ll be seeing a lot more of them both.

The Guest = Stevens

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rodgers does his best James Bond impression in The Winter Soldier, the first Marvel film to truly break away from a standard that might’ve been becoming generic. Its influence can be traced back to films based around Cold War politics and the aforementioned espionage range, but that’s not to say The Winter Solider loses its superhero drive. In his third credited appearance Chris Evans nails it as the red, white and blue shield-tosser. (As in thrower of protective instrument and not, well… you know).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Chris Evans

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves’ sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks incredible, even by the lofty standards set in our technology age. But this is more than simply a visual wonderment, it’s also genuinely moving. Though Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is unlikely to earn him a golden statuette – in truth, those early rumblings were probably unfairly devoid of much foundation – the actor cements his position as peerless when it comes to motion capture acting. He deserves recognition, as does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the year’s best blockbusters.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar

6. 12 Years a Slave

Critically-speaking, this is probably the most important film of 2014. Steve McQueen’s movie is an eternally tough watch because we are an eternally flawed species. You’ll do well to find any flaws throughout this offering though, for 12 Years a Slave is an unyielding masterstroke. It rightly won Best Picture back in March and, in truth, wouldn’t look out of place far higher on this list.

5. Gone Girl

We never really know where David Fincher is about to take us during Gone Girl, and as much as our minds are racing attempting to put those pieces together, we never really want to know either. It’s all just so creepy and insane. The director pulls no punches and lives up to his obsessive nature – everything looks pristine, adding to the unsettling aura. Rosamund Pike delivers the best performance of the year and Ben Affleck is quite exceptional too.

Gone Girl - Pike

4. Blue Ruin

I viewed Blue Ruin in a sparsely populated screening room, having entered carrying a brain filled less with critical expectation than a need for sleep. I didn’t sleep. Instead, I intently watched the tautest 90 minutes of the year play out, headlined by a manically normal Macon Blair. This revenge tale harkens back to Hitchcockian cinema; simple, frenetic and nail-biting.

Blue Ruin - Blair

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis placed third in my January-July top ten, behind Blue Ruin and 12 Years a Slave. Now that the last twelve months have collectively drawn to a close, and without the benefit of having re-watched any of the three, Inside Llewyn Davis has won out as the film that continues to reverberate in my mind with the most fondness. It must be down to Oscar Isaacs’ enchanting tones. Or the Coen brothers’ musky setting. This film is also the least bleak of the trio. Hurray for holiday spirit!

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

If The Winter Soldier bucked the generic Marvel trend, Guardians of the Galaxy entered another universe. James Gunn is given the most energetic and interactive cast of the year to work with, so he has them dancing in plant pots and making jokes about Kevin Bacon. Wouldn’t you? The film is packed full of witty gags, but is not without a touching underbelly. After only one outing, the Guardians might’ve even gained more favour than those Avengers. Thor needs to pray more.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

1. Interstellar

Interstellar isn’t perfect. The piece wobbles under the weight of its scientific load occasionally, and champions an ending that might exceed the justifiably grounded expectations of some. But it’s pure cinema. It’s inspiring and uplifting. Heart-breaking and mesmerising. Christopher Nolan pits the plausibility of science against the will of humanity, incorporating an effective cast and a thrilling technical palette in the process, and he subsequently conceives the best film of 2014.

Interstellar - MM

I hope you’re all having a tip-top holiday!

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros, Picturehouse, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, CBS Films

Top 10 Films of 2014 (January-July)

Apart from serving as a stark and somewhat worrying reminder about university work that I’ve not yet completed but absolutely should have, August is also the last month of summer blockbuster season. I’ve no idea why that’s relevant. Here are my top 10 films of the calendar year thus far. UK release dates. It’s about a month late.

We all love lists though, so I hope you fine folks’ll forgive me.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer guides the X-Men franchise back to form with a rip-roaring circus act made up of mind bending time travel, slow motion wall-running and Wolverine being Wolverine. Days of Future Past manages its cast supremely well – even the underused Evan Peters is magnetic. Though, not Magneto. He could be. That joke wasn’t even planned.

DoFP - McAvoy

9. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson both runs and steals the show as Father James Lavelle in a film that plays its cards from the get-go, before promoting a townsfolk guessing game as darkly entertaining and intriguing as any before. The screenplay evolves as characters unravel and, through Father James, we become an integral part of it all.

Calvary - Gleeson and Reilly

8. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome! And hilarious. And energetic. And utterly batty. A flick that proudly flaunts something for everyone, The Lego Movie is non-stop from start until finish; the incessant stream of laughter that spills from our mouths makes it difficult to regain control of breathing. The film ain’t perfect but when things are this gleefully mental, it doesn’t need to be.

The Lego Movie - Icons

7. Locke

For 85 minutes we sit in a car with Tom Hardy and for 85 minutes Tom Hardy magnificently transforms into an ordinary guy bearing a portfolio of problems, each one weightier than the previous. Locke is a moment in time driven by authentic normality that’s incredibly hard to come by on film.

Locke - Hardy in Car

6. Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza is even more than that: it’s startlingly funny, unconditionally engaging and the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. Tom Cruise flips perception on its head, but Emily Blunt is the one who kicks most ass. Edge of Tomorrow is summer popcorn cinema done intelligently. The correct way.

Edge of Tomorrow - Blunt

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Hailed as more than simply one of Marvel’s superhero jaunts, The Winter Soldier captures a variety of interests. There’s both a political tinge and an espionage strand to go along with the familiar genre narrative, and these additions work. Chris Evans unveils his best performance as the Cap’n in a film that is considered by many to be the best Marvel output to date. Honestly.

Captain America The Winter Soldier - Captain

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn grabs the impressive progress made in Rise and swings to new, greater heights. The tone is more wrought and the outlook is increasingly bleak but, from acting to visuality, the execution is wholly sublime. To simplify Matt Reeves’ flick as the best looking film in a generation would be to do it a disservice. It is, but Dawn also boasts a fulfilling and rewarding foundation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar and Mate

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

From smoky bars to icy streets, there’s no escaping the genuine purity of the Coen brothers’ folk piece. Its screenplay is morbidly delightful, and Oscar Isaac is a walking manifestation of just that. Llewyn is a bit of an ass yet we root for him. Peculiarly, and perhaps it’s just me, despite his downtrodden unluckiness we want to be him. Then again, it might simply be the allure of this latest Coen tale.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac Guitar

2. 12 Years a Slave

Formally recognised as 2013’s best film, 12 Years a Slave hit UK cinemas in January of this year. It’s inarguably the toughest piece on this particular list, and is certainly one of the most gruelling watches in recent memory. Not only is Steve McQueen’s retelling of the harrowing slave trade important, but it’s also incredibly well delivered. People should see this because it depicts a vile chapter that ought to be bookmarked as a warning to humanity.

12 Years a Slave - Ejiofor

1. Blue Ruin

Though it’s not as heavy as 12 Years a Slave, or as furnished as Inside Llewyn Davis, or as visually striking as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Blue Ruin comes nail-bitingly close each time. This is simple storytelling relayed with a restrained confidence and wholesome purpose, and there’s even a tremendous lead performance from Macon Blair to cap it all off. It’s just brilliant.

Blue Ruin - Blair Distance

I’m off to read about the geopolitics of Hollywood.

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox, Entertainment One, Warner Bros, A24, Walt Disney Studios, CBS Films

Fargo (1996)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: April 5th, 1996 (US); May 31st, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy

A jack of all trades, and perhaps one of the best. Shuttled forth by a bleakly comedic narrative, Fargo occasionally amps up the awkward, tie-loosening tension before ploughing right and left into a caveat of blunt criminality. There’s an inherently dramatic element too, the underbelly of bumbling luck and the ultimate tale of karma. The Coen brothers boast a unique style; precise in their crafting and often ironic in their delivery, a deliriously absorbing mantra that stretches far and wide here. Characters gargle seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue, yet a nonchalant poise often demands bouts of laughter. And therein lies the film’s most admirable quality: it makes you guffaw through moments of sadism, but never denounces you for doing so. The sibling duo at the helm aren’t overly serious in their direction (only when required), yet still manage to divulge a genuine sense of authentic story-telling. In Fargo, every scene holds a certain weight and although engagement with the particulars is at the viewer’s discretion, there’s never a sense of an overbearing burden. Yaaaa.

In Fargo, North Dakota, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — a woman as cheerful as she is pregnant — is called to a road-side accident harbouring two casualties. Only it’s not an accident, and is instead part of a series of unfortunate events set alight by car salesman Gerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in an attempt to recoup much needed cash for his family. A master plan that would garner appreciation from the likes of John Kramer, Gerry hires a pair of quintessential henchmen to kidnap his wife and subsequently demand an $80,000 ransom, the spoils of which would be shared between the trio of plotters. Only Gerry is deviously untangling his own personal puppeteering strings, ready to juggle them against his father-in-law in an attempt to gain one million dollars from the extravaganza. In Gerry’s anxiety-plastered eyes, family comes first… and last.

There’s an ever-present aura that wilfully jaunts around any Coen film. It’s easy to spot, deliberate in implementation but astutely subtle as to never degrade proceedings. Drawing upon the experience of 16 previous films, seeing the words “Joel and Ethan Coen” sprawl across the screen nowadays prompts an intrinsic knowledge that meticulous sardonicism will soon be lingering. Released when their three-decade-old filmmaking odyssey was eighteen years younger, Fargo might just be the sibling duo’s most complete diamond of irony. Some films might be more wholesome in their flippant ideology, for example O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its caper-esque comedic quality, whereas others will undoubtedly offer greater absorbency through numerous interpretations and delightful tones, such as Inside Llewyn Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another Coen creation as genre-splicing as Fargo though, for this conglomeration of classification is what cinema is all about.

In a Minnesotan setting bitten by frost and populated with oddities constantly attempting to cover their innocuous tracks (“I don’t vouch for him”) the Coen brothers present and develop a number of wholly recognisable characters. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the absolute epitome of a caricature criminal partnership: the snivelling manipulator, out of his depth but armed with a motor mouth, and the dumb brute, purposeful only in violent outbursts or foul language. Gerry Lundegaard is the struggling businessman who ventures further into the ocean of uncertainty than he should, and is all the more blundering for it. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson has more money than patience, and decreases in accessibility when he knows his cash is at risk (“A lotta damn money” is one of the funniest gags). These characters are familiar, but they are also affectionately handled and escorted through a variety of tonal preoccupations, from comedy to crime to drama, constantly forging energy and slap-stick-like commotion. Our child-bearing detective Marge is the only figure who detours from the norm; noticeably pregnant, deliriously good-humoured and actively chasing murderers are three traits that do not often mesh together. This hodgepodge collection of characters coupled alongside a narrative that explodes with vibrancy, will refrain from giving you enough time to reflect on what just happened before it makes you ponder what’s going to happen next.

Yet, in spite of a growing sense of madness, the Coens always appear fully in control. Although the narrative is idiosyncratic — one minute a Steve Buscemi facial expression will have your jaw aching and the next a gunshot will leave you in shock — there is a point, a certain method, to all on-screen antics. The craziness of each character reflects the madness of his or her actions, prompting us to consider the length of a person’s sanity during tough times, whilst simultaneously sending out a nod towards the wondrous scope of cinema. Masterfully, the Coens develop a blunt and sadistic sense of realism amongst the hilarities. Fargo details karma as a rapid mule with more bite than the cold landscape from which it festers. In this tale of people playing people playing people, only the people face the consequences.

Shepherded by Roger Deakins’ icy cinematography, the arctic setting becomes a player of its own as it seeps into every other aspect of the film. Most characters endure cold minds. Lasting shots of mundaneness appear frozen to the screen. There’s a stiff lack of motivation, embodied emphatically by Marge’s police partner who can only conjure up phrases such as, “Watch your step Margie,” and, “You okay Margie?” as the heavily pregnant woman inspects dead bodies. Even the comedy is frosty — plotting and kidnapping is carried out in an atmosphere far more jovial than intense. Though, the funny buck stops at murder, an action presented more chillingly and viscerally than any other.

Regular Coen contributors Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi are once again on hand and, alongside William H. Macy, deliver terrific performances. Humour is the common denominator for the trio, though the source varies. For McDormand, an incessant politeness in the face of violence and misnomer creates a peculiar dynamic. McDormand’s poise throughout sees Marge one step ahead of the game, even when she’s a day or two behind the others. Entirely the opposite, then, is Macy as the bumbling goof businessman Gerry. Gerry’s idiocy is built from a spectrum of nervous facial expressions and worried posturing; an unassured plight that sees no positive solution. He’s anxious to a T, but so dud-like that you sort of expect his ridiculous plan to come off in a spectacularly inadvertent fashion. The third of three great performances derives from the acting chops of Steve Buscemi, whose raging demeanour funds a big-mouthed little guy not far removed from Tommy DeVito. He relentlessly contradicts himself and thus withholds attracting seriousness, but it’s obvious that Buscemi is having a blast with the role and fun is infectious. It also helps that he gets many of the funniest quips.

The Coen brothers leave nothing to chance and inject Fargo with fastidious application — it’s no surprise that a wintry white landscape pronounces vivid red blood. The film will keep you guessing, is littered with humour and completely embraces the medium from which it thrives. In doing so, it even has the wherewithal to reflect on the outrageousness of its characters’ wrong-doings.

In the often correct words of Roger Ebert, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake

The bumbling Llewyn Davis sits opposite Bud Grossman, a music mogul the folk singer has literally gone lengths to meet. Grossman, perhaps out of good grace rather than expectation, whispers he wants to hear something from “Inside Llewyn Davis”. You can see the toil in Llewyn’s guitar strumming hands, the plight in his aching voice and the desperation in his knowing eyes. Knowing, because he’s seen failure before. Always. It’s a powerful moment in a bleakly rich tale about a music churner on the periphery of a scene ready to erupt. Although Llewyn is often the source of his own downfall and despite his tendency to be a bit of an asshole, you campaign dearly for him. Out of sympathy? Sure. But also because Oscar Isaac plays the bedraggled artist to an absolute tee. And if not that, then it’s the harmonious melodies and captivating words emanating from Llewyn’s mouth that seal your approval. The Coen’s are back, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a drowsy doozy.

It’s 1961. Layered with frost and shrouded in the icy breath of its residents, New York’s Greenwich Village is a hotbed for folk music. Llewyn Davis is part of the emerging scene; at least he aspires to be, but his newest album hasn’t sold and his partner-in-song recently committed suicide. Lower on luck than money — and he’s pretty damn tight on both — Llewyn plays intermittently at the Gaslight Cafe before scrounging a stranger’s couch for the night. When we first meet him, the folk singer laments lyrics that ring true alongside his sombre existence (“Hang me, oh hang me”). Soon after Llewyn finds himself beat up in a dank and saturated alleyway, a physical and painful embodiment of his musical struggles.

And it gets worse before it gets worse again. His friends, perhaps the only ones, are moderately successful and on the rise. John (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are a singing duo, often Llewyn’s haven both financially and in shelter. Only now Jean is pregnant and unsure of the father, effectively severing any amiable ties between herself and the unfortunate Llewyn. The Gorfien’s also boast a couch familiar to Llewyn. This very mundane-yet-collapsing existence is exceedingly prevalent for the Welsh-named man. It’s a Coen trademark, harking back to one of their recent outings, A Serious Man. Llewyn and Larry (the serious man) are dealt similar misfortunes in life — it wouldn’t come as a total surprise to discover the pair are related, they certainly share a kindred luckless spirit. Just like in A Serious Man, arguably even more so, you find yourself hampering alongside the lead fortune-insulator in an attempt to lighten the load.

Oscar Isaac is outstanding in the lead role. His portrayal of Llewyn Davis does not boast charisma, rather that trait flares from everyone else around him. Instead he is controlled, restrained, almost as if the next bout of bad news is a given at any moment. His inhibitions outside performing — Llewyn’s depth is less than the milk bowl he feeds his temporary cat with — are the reason for the folk singer’s lack of progression (“not a star”; “there’s no money there”). Isaac’s expertly lacking in grandiose performance is probably the reason he was wrongly snubbed by the Academy, when in reality this is certainly one of the best performances of the year.

It’s his lack of success that bolsters Llewyn’s admirability. Near the beginning of his torrid week, he mistakenly-yet-not-unexpectedly lets the Gorfien’s cat out. His subsequent adventures alongside the furry animal are telling, and often mirror Llewyn’s personal detriments. Suddenly, there arrives a point where you question Llewyn’s reasoning for still carrying the cat, but realise the answer is glaringly obvious: as it clambers on his chest in the underground, the cat represents Llewyn’s own conflicts. It’s his proverbial ‘chip on the shoulder’ if you like. Llewyn can’t seem to grasp the advancing folk culture, perhaps because his mind is cramped full of other problems which demand facilitating — he takes a fee rather than royalties on the comical song “Please Mr. Kennedy”, one that he detests but records at the mercy of instant cash. Often the cat escapes Llewyn’s person yet he always finds and reclaims it, indicating Llewyn’s unconscious inability to let go and develop his own self. The singer is hemmed in — not just by tight corridors — and seemingly the only means of escape is the sole entrance that takes him directly back to where he began.

In one of their heated debates, Llewyn labels Jean a “careerist” not realising the folk scene only offers success via the semi-corporate route she is traversing. “Please Mr. Kennedy” is an upbeat, topical space tune illustrating the rise of its vocalist, whereas Llewyn often finds his own passion in singing songs about death (“If I Had Wings”); songs that draw you in and sell your ears a piece of Llewyn’s heart, but songs that indiscriminately distance themselves from commercial flourishing. When Llewyn sings the film bursts into life, ironically a tantalising life that Llewyn himself can’t live, one he only provide. Another Coen collaboration with T-Bone Burnett sizzles up a wonderfully echoing and at times heart-wrenching soundtrack, one that hums alongside a smoky moodiness. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the benchmark, and Inside Llewyn Davis just about reaches it.

Oscar Isaac’s tremendous rendition aside, the film is bolstered by an array of eccentric, humorous and penchant performances. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan exude a genuine chemistry, one that is sort of awkward in the wake of Llewyn, just as it should be. Coen stalwart John Goodman is back and funnier than ever (“You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge!”) as a loudmouth, jazz musician who derides folk music. Military man by day folk artist by night, Stark Sands provides an early measure of off-beat hilarity at the beginning of Llewyn’s dourness, a comical thread that is never lost on the Coen’s and therefore one that often successfully prevails over the textured malaise.

From the second Llewyn Davis enters the viewer’s presence to the moment the viewer’s presence leaves the cinema, you find it exceedingly difficult to believe in his music success story. It’s not that you don’t want too, far from it. Rather, the Coen brothers have meticulously mechanised an early 1960s folk scene that blends the unfortunate with a frustration, an atmosphere Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis gloomily basks in.

At the end of a tediously long journey that eventually renders itself pointless, Llewyn’s questioning of a beat poet’s escapades is met with a staunch, “Long story”. In a way it’s fitting because that long story, encased in uncertainty, hapless luck, and banality, is Llewyn’s life in a nutshell.

Oscars 2014 — Early Predictions

On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.

The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.

I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.

 

The Nominations

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

 

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos

 

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

 

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: David O. Russell

 

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

 

On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.

This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.

His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.