Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are in a more reflective mood for this beautifully crafted drama, set amongst the New York folk scene of the early 1960s.

Opening with folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing in a Greenwich Village nightclub in January 1961, we soon discover he is a man struggling against the odds, in both his personal and working life.

His record label are useless in paying his meagre royalties, a hectoring ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) tells him she is pregnant (and she’s unsure who the father is), he frequently has to couch surf and also manages to lose a friend’s cat.

Despite all of these mishaps he plugs away in search of a bigger break, travelling to Chicago and back again in the winter, trying to convince people to take a chance on his music or a least help him out financially.

Wilfully subverting the traditions of the rags to riches music biopic, it focuses on a man whose existence appears to be an ever decreasing circle of fame and money.

Imagine if Bob Dylan hadn’t quite made it and you’ll soon get the idea.

If this seems like a gloomy tale, don’t forget that the Coens are past masters at mixing light and dark and this is along the lines of A Serious Man (2009) and Barton Fink (1991).

Like those movies, it features many funny scenes populated with memorable characters: two friendly academics (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett); a sister (Jeanine Serralles); singer and ex-partner Jean (Mulligan) who is now seeing a rival Jim (Justin Timberlake).

One of the most striking episodes – which may be related to the film’s title – is a road trip to Chicago where Davis hitches a lift with a silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a rotund jazz impresario (John Goodman), on the way to see a promoter (F. Murray Abraham).

This sequence, and the film as a whole, bears all the hallmarks of their very best work: immaculately shot by DP Bruno Delbonnel, it also features some stunning production design by Jess Gonchor, who recreates the era in meticulous detail.

At the centre of all this is an excellent performance by Oscar Isaac, who manages to capture the weary melancholy and outsider attitude of a struggling – and not particularly likeable – artist.

As for The Coens, this seems to be another of their more personal films where a Job-like protagonist is constantly struggling within a comically hostile universe.

But the aforementioned connection with Bob Dylan is an interesting one: like the legendary folk singer, they moved from Minnesota to New York and a scene near the end is perhaps more than just a tip of the hat to him.

As for the soundtrack, the Coens team up once again with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, who memorably collaborated on the O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) soundtrack, and the result is arguably as good.

One of the year’s most impressive films, it is a strong addition to the Coen’s canon and a memorable depiction of a struggling artist.

Inside Llewyn Davis screened at the London Film Festival on Tues 15th, Thurs 17th and Sat 19th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Listen to the soundtrack
> Reviews of Inside Llewyn Davis at Metacritic

DVD & Blu-ray

Blood Simple Director’s Cut

Blood Simple DVD

The debut film of the Coen Brothers gets a welcome re-release on DVD.

Whilst true fans might mourn the lack of a Blu-ray (though there is a Region 1), this Director’s Cut is a reminder of how striking their entrance into the film world was.

Bearing similar hallmarks to some of their later works, notably Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007), this neo-noir crime drama is a dark tale of murder, cash and betrayal.

Over the next twenty years the Joel and Ethan Coen would ascend to the front rank of American filmmakers and one can see the seeds here: quirky characters, the music of Carter Burwell, confident editing and a distinct visual style would all blossom in later works.

Also established here was their fraternal working methods, as Time magazine noted in 2007:

Joel writes and directs (with Ethan’s help), Ethan writes and produces (with Joel’s help), and both edit under the joint pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.

It also demonstrated their tremendous eye for character actors, the standout here being M. Emmet Walsh, as a corrupt private investigator, who bears some resemblance to Javier Bardem’s hitman in No Country.

One wonders if the Coens were thinking of their debut film when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel: both are set in early 80s Texas, make use of voiceover and paint a dark picture of humanity whilst sprinkling it with humour.

The multi-Oscar winning No Country is still the more accomplished film, but Blood Simple still stands up as one of the key independent films of the 1980s.

Funded by making a trailer, which was then screened for potential investors, it soon made waves on the festival circuit, winning the main prize at Sundance in 1985.

The sense of unease blended with comedy, the startling camera moves and clever narrative twists were all rightly applauded at the time, and the performances from Dan Hedaya, Frances McDormand, John Getz and the aforementioned Walsh are exemplary.

Walsh especially is hard to forget: his eerie Cold War voiceovers about the Soviet Union, pale yellow suit , silver revolver and laugh make him among the most memorable figures the Coens have ever put on screen.

Part of the pleasure of Blood Simple is in seeing how things unravel for the lead characters, as the story takes frequently unexpected turns and ventures down some dark alleys.

Utilising Texas locations on a low-budget, the Lone Star state provides a haunting backdrop to the skullduggery on-screen.

In retrospect, one can see cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s raw, yet stylish, visuals as a forerunner to their long collaboration (he would later direct in his own right) and Joel’s background as an editor served him well, as sequences just click into place.

In their playful style the Coen Bros did a Director’s Cut 3 minutes shorter, along with some minor changes to the original version, and that is the one that is being re-released on DVD.

Blood Simple (Director’s Cut) is released on Monday 15th April by Studiocanal

> Buy Blood Simple on DVD via Amazon UK
> Find out more about the Coen Brothers at Wikipedia


Is Michael Bay a Coen Brothers Fan?

Michael Bay is a very different director compared to The Coen Brothers, so why does he keep casting actors from their films?

It was during the latest Transformers film, as Chicago was being destroyed by intergalactic robots, that it struck me that its director might have a thing for America’s leading fraternal auteurs.

When John Turturro (perhaps the quintessential Coen actor) and Frances McDormand (another Coen regular who also happens to be married to Joel) appeared in the same scene, it was hard to ignore the weird sensation that the spirit of the Coens had entered into the most commercial blockbuster of the summer.

If you take a close look at the films of Bay and the Coens, there has been a lot of crossover in terms of the actors who have been in their films.

Examine this chart:

[Click here for a larger version]

The pattern seems to be that Bay casts actors who have established themselves in the Coen universe.

With The Rock (1996), Nicolas Cage was cast in his first blockbuster lead role after appearing in Raising Arizona (1987). A coincidence? Then why does William Forsythe crop up in exactly the same films?

John Turturro is the wild card.

Perhaps the actor who embodied the Coens early period – with key roles in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) – he has also carved out a parallel career in Adam Sandler comedies such as Mr. Deeds (2002) and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008), as well as the Transformers franchise.

Actors and directors often like to mix commercial pay cheques with more personal projects, but it seems Turturro is on a one man mission to create the most interesting acting CV in American history.

This is a man who’s acting career begins with Raging Bull (1980) and takes in such films as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Quiz Show (1994), The Luzhin Defence (2001), Collateral Damage (2002), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Cars 2 (out this summer).

Steve Buscemi is just below Turturro when it comes to paying his Coen dues, with roles alongside him in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, as well as a fantastic turn in Fargo (1996).

But he has also been a quirky presence in Bay’s spectacular’s such as Armageddon (1998) and The Island (2005).

These last two movies expand the Coen-Bay matrix further still, as Peter Stormare starred alongside Buscemi in both but only after notable appearances in Fargo and The Big Lebowski (1998).

He also squeezed in a role in Bad Boys II (2003) for good measure.

Billy Bob Thornton somewhat bucks the trend as he appeared in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) after a supporting turn in Armageddon.

But things get back on track with Scarlett Johansson – cropping up in The Island after her role in The Man Who Wasn’t There – and John Malkovich, who appears in the new Transformers film after his role in Burn After Reading (2008).

So, what does this all signify?

When it was announced that Turturro and McDormand were cast in Transformers 3, Matthew Fleischer of Fishbowl LA highlighted a comment on Deadline that joked about Bay making a Coen Brothers movie.

Movieline recently had a post titled ‘5 Coen Brothers Stock Players Who Haven’t Appeared In a Michael Bay Film, But Should‘ and Row Three also chipped in with some thoughts on this odd phenomenon.

So, when he isn’t shooting high-octane action movies, filming Victoria Secret’s commercials and driving around in his Ferrari, is Bay logging on to Criterion’s website to see if they are releasing The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) on Blu-ray?

Well, it turns out Bay is actually is a big Coen Brothers fan, as he revealed in an interview back in 1998, which can be found on his website:

I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, and I’d love to find some dark, quirky comedy or some thriller. Nothing to do with special effects or explosions.

Perhaps this will be his next film project?

> Michael Bay and The Coen Brothers at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

True Grit

This beautifully crafted Western from the Coen Brothers is a much richer adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 film version.

It begins in Arkansas during the 1870s with a young girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hiring grizzled US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer (Josh Brolin).

A Texas Ranger named Le Beouf (Matt Damon), who is also after Chaney, joins them as they head out into Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) and, despite their differences in age and temperament, gradually form a close bond.

Although regarded by some as a remake of the film that finally won John Wayne his first Oscar, this is actually more faithful to the original novel, preserving the point of view of Mattie and its distinctive depiction of the Wild West.

Both the town of Fort Smith and the rugged surrounding landscape are recreated with consummate skill: regular cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the terrain with a harsh beauty and Jess Gonchor’s production design helps create a detailed, but never romanticised, world.

The wintry setting makes for palette which emphasizes blacks, browns and greys, which is in stark contrast to the garish Technicolor of the Henry Hathaway film.

Aspects of the setting such as the rough way of life and the violence also mark this out from the previous version.

Not only does this help make the current film distinctive but also provides a convincing backdrop for the actors to shine, although it might surprise some audiences how much of a presence Steinfeld has in the film.

In what is effectively the lead role, she anchors the narrative and acts as a surrogate for the audience, as we see much of the action through her perspective.

A precocious performance, it is amongst the best any child actor has given in recent years and bodes well for her future career.

As Cogburn, Bridges banishes any lingering memories of Wayne in the role, mixing the grizzled, boozy charm of his country singer in Crazy Heart with the believable tough streak of a hardened lawman.

Damon has the slightly lighter role of Le Beouf (pronounced ‘Le Beef’), but his comic timing is impeccable and provides an excellent foil for Bridges and Steinfeld.

All three main actors cope well with the affected dialogue, which the Coens have gleefully taken straight from the novel, and this is mirrored by quirky ‘Coenesque’ behaviour, which involves characters shooting at cornbread and arguing about Confederate guerrillas.

With less screen time, actors such as Brolin and Barry Pepper (as ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper) make a strong impression and there are the usual array of distinctive, odd-looking minor characters that often crop up in the work of the Coens.

Carter Burwell’s plaintive score is moving without ever being sentimental and provides a highly satisfying mix of hymns, strings and piano to augment the action.

Despite featuring the ironic tone so beloved of the Coen Brothers, there is a pleasing sincerity to Mattie’s quest, as her scripture-fuelled journey captures her determination and spirit, which rubs off on the men around her.

This is something that is movingly depicted as the film reaches its latter stages.

Certain memorable sequences, such as a group hanging or the climax, skilfully weave humour in with genuine tension, showing the light and shade of the West as originally imagined by Charles Portis.

Since the book and previous film came out in the cultural tumult of the late 1960s, the image of John Wayne cast a long shadow over the source material, obscuring the way in which Portis slyly undercut the very traditions of the Western that ‘Duke’ embodied.

The Coens have translated this humour and pathos for a time of similar cultural transition, making a Western that both celebrates and wryly debunks the genre.

A reminder of their prodigious filmmaking talent, it is also an evocation of a distant time and place that feels strangely radical in the current era of Hollywood.

True Grit is out in the US and opens in the UK on Friday 11th February

> Official site
> Reviews of True Grit at Metacritic
> More on the Charles Portis novel at Wikipedia
> The Coen Brothers at the IMDb
> NY Times profile of Charles Portis


Trailer: True Grit

The first trailer for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has been released and it looks like a more serious adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 version with John Wayne.

Is it just me or is there a vague No Country For Old Men vibe to this?

UPDATE 05/10/10: Paramount have now released a longer version of the trailer:

True Grit is released in the US on December 25th

> True Grit (2010) at the IMDb
> Find out more about the 1968 novel at Wikipedia


The Coen Brothers discuss how they edit

Video of The Coen Brothers from 2007 discussing how they edit their movies with none other than their former DP Barry Sonnenfeld.