Monday, December 30, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Ethan Phillips
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The biggest surprise about Inside Llewyn Davis is just how narrow its focus is. The title should have probably been our first clue. This is a character study to the core. And it's a difficult, challenging one we should have known was coming since it's from the Coen brothers. And that will still don't see it coming is the greatest thing about it. What's surprising is just how unconventional it is, even by their standards. Anyone expecting an overview of the early 60's Greenwich Village folk scene and spoon fed warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia associated that period should probably search elsewhere. Which isn't to say they don't nail the time period completely in look, sound and everything else accompanying it. There is one brush with history, and while it's a big one, it's handled so nonchalantly that it hardly draws attention to itself. The Coens have nothing to prove. No one to impress. They just know exactly what they're doing, even when we haven't the slightest clue. Sometimes it's best to just trust the audience to figure things out.

Despite its subject being loosely based on late folk singer Dave Van Ronk (and his posthumously published 2005 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street) this isn't Van Ronk biopic. That his ex-wife has criticized the film for being untruthful or inaccurate makes little sense considering it's not about him. By all accounts, Van Ronk was a well-liked guy with few (or any) of the problems this protagonist deals with. It's the trajectory of his career that provides the inspiration more than anything else. He's the jumping off point. Fame may have eluded him, but he wasn't a failure. Inside Llewyn Davis is all about failure and what it means. Or rather how thin the line separating failure and success can be. There were many more Dave Van Ronks than Bob Dylans, which makes one wonder if some strange combination of luck, opportunity, skill, timing or motivation caused the former to fade into obscurity while the latter became a legend? The film doesn't attempt to make sense of that because you can't. The Coens wisely choose not to try, and by doing that, somehow do.  

At one point Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told, rather pointedly, that he doesn't have the innate charisma or connection with the audience to ever become a successful solo act in the business. It's clearer to us even earlier that he just might not have the ability to connect with people at all in any capacity. Llewyn was one half of a semi-popular folk duo with musical partner, Mike Timlin (sung by Mumford and Sons' Marcus Mumford), who killed himself jumping off the George Washington Bridge. At this rate, he's headed in the same direction, with his life stuck in an endless loop of mooching off friends who probably should have stopped tolerating him a while ago. What's saddest and darkly comical about the situation is how talented he actually is and how little that seems to matter.

The film's opening, in which he sings a gut-wrenching rendition of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" at the Gaslight wins us over immediately, and we'll stay on his side even as it's clear later the lengths he'll go to squander that potential. His manager isn't paying him. His sister hates him. And now he's stuck with an orange cat belonging to his friends the Gorfeins, whose Upper West Side apartment he's just crashed at. But his most fractured relationship is with folk singer and ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), who he impregnated in spite of her being married to good friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Short on money and with a solo recording deal far out of reach, Llewyn has to choose between what he considers "selling out" to pursue a music career, or abandoning it altogether. What's so tragicomic is how he somehow finds a way to royally screw up both options. He's just one of those guys where nothing he does seems to go right no matter how hard he tries. And, admittedly, he isn't even trying very hard since he doesn't care, or maybe cares a little too much, with very few definitive actions backing it up.

It's one hilarious catastrophe after the next that leads him to desperately take Timberlake's Jim up on his invitation to join he and Al Cody (Adam Driver) to record a goofy, folk-pop song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy." A lot has already been said and written about the scene and song being the film's defining (and funniest) moment, and it is, but it's interesting to look at it from the perspective of what qualified as embarrassingly bad commercial music that appealed to the masses in the early '60's. The real irony might be that the ridiculously catchy, borderline brilliant song is about ten times better than anything that would even pass as legitimately good pop music today. It really isn't bad, but the performances from the three actors as they discuss and prepare to deliver it in the scene's context makes it seem like the silliest song ever written. In any other context, it's amazing. But Llewyn is truly mortified having to perform it, before unintentionally sabatoging what could have been his only big payout with a lack of business acumen.

As much action that takes place in a time specific New York, the strangest section of the film actually occurs on the way to Chicago, as Llewyn hitches a ride with a James Dean-like beat poet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and his passenger, the cranky, belligerent jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman, in top form), who spends the entire road trip hurling insults and telling nonsensical stories. I'm guessing this is the place where the movie probably loses a lot of perplexed audience members, but anyone familiar with the Coens work will instantly recognize it as the most Coen-like part of this whole absurd, but strangely moving adventure that's brimming at the rim with eccentric characters.

The casting of Oscar Isaac was a masterstroke because we don't really know who he is and doesn't bring the baggage a bigger, more established name would. Watching him as Llewyn is like seeing (and of course listening) to him for the first time, since few are likely to even recognize the actor from his supporting roles in movies like Drive. He's the star of the show playing a depressed character who lacks the charisma and drive to ever be the star of the show. Think how difficult that must be. And yet, against all odds, he manages to make this selfish, angry guy completely likable every step of the way. There wasn't a moment I wasn't rooting for him to pull out of this rut, even as the chances of that continue to diminish with each passing disaster. And boy can Isaac ever sing. I'd say he should release a folk album but he already did. It's the soundtrack to this movie which, top to bottom, feels like a legitimate folk release from the early '60's. Everyone in this does their own singing with famed producer T-Bone Burnett again turning in revelatory work by seamlessly replicating the music of the period.

In a way, it also feels like we're discovering the better known Carey Mulligan for the first time since seeing her play a morose, angry character who curses like a sailor would seem about a thousand paces removed for her if not for the added layer of vulnerability she infuses her with. Timberlake, as usual, proves there are few limits to what he can do as a performer in any medium, as it's unlikely anyone suspected he'd be able to believably portray one half of a folk duo with Mulligan and that they'd look and sound so authentic.

"Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis," requests record producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) when the singer arrives to meet him in Chicago. Llewyn responds by pouring his heart out with the beautifully depressing "The Death of Queen Jane," an eerily appropriate song selection given his current state. It's only upon reflection that this becomes the most important scene of the film, likely stinging quite a bit for anyone who's suffered for their art, been judged, or faced the pain of rejection. So basically everyone. Ultimately, does it matter whether this producer thinks there's any "money" in this? Are his criticisms valid or is he just on a power trip at Llewyn's expense? One could argue that if he truly had the passion and fire in his belly to see this through then it wouldn't have mattered to him one bit what this producer thought. If he loved making music he wouldn't he continue doing it, even if it meant temporarily finding another means of income? That's the big question mark. His talent is not.

A big fuss has been made by some about how a big a jerk this character is, but so was Bob Dylan, and we liked him. So that can't be it. History is written by the winners, even if the losers are often losers for a reason. Llewyn isn't quite as unlikable as he's been accused, or even as unlikable as some of the other characters he shares this Greenwich Village universe with. He's just badly floundering. Defeated by life and himself. The film's ending (which I won't dare spoil here) almost seems like a cruel (but wickedly hilarious) cosmic joke, reminding us that sometimes it really is only about being at the right place at the right time. And a bunch of other cards lining up just right. None of them have for this guy, partially by his own doing. The film does this loopy thing with time, folding over on itself and suggesting he may never break out of this cycle, opening up what was a relatively simple story for a variety of differing interpretations.

Admittedly it takes a while for this whole experience to settle in because there's so much more going on than first appears on the surface and I'm still not sure I've processed all of it. That final scene is a real zinger. We like to be on the winning team and watching movies about success make us feel good. But the few movies made about failure usually end up being deeper and more interesting. There are a limited number of ways to achieve, but no bounds to the amount of seemingly improbable ways someone can't. Llewyn Davis has most of them covered, and in showing that, the Coens give us exactly the '60's folk film we didn't know we wanted, or even necessarily deserved.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2013

So, it's time. Which movie poster will join the ranks of The American, Funny Games and The Master as my choice for the year's best? It's always fun to look at how trends in movie poster design emerge and evolve, but a fairly unsettling one surfaced in 2013. This shouldn't come as a surprise since we've been building toward it for a while now, but it's impossible not to notice how few mainstream movie posters warranted mention or even runner-up status on anything other than a WORST list. Just scrolling up and down the page, you'll see a shocking amount of titles most of the general ticket-buying public have never heard of, much less seen. And that's definitely not their fault.

More money on the line frequently means a studio is less likely to take the risk accompanied with hiring an artist or experienced creative mind to handle the print advertising for their film. The result is a bunch of suits deciding what we want as a marketing committee airbrushes and photoshops performers' heads and bodies to the point of unrecognizability. The notion that posters just ain't what they used to be was recently touched on by Movie Geeks United co-host Dean Treadway on the show and in his must view 200 Favorite Movie Posters list on Filmicability, which provides valuable insight into what makes for a truly great print, citing some terrific examples that span the decades. I'd agree that poster art has turned the corner in over the past few years, provided you know where to look. The best ones make it impossible to divorce yourself from the experience of watching the movie every time you lay eyes on them. And yes, many have made a difference in nudging me toward titles I never would have checked out otherwise. The choices below hopefully represent the cream of the crop, along with some others that are unfortunately scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The Best...

10. Diana

Okay, so the movie was supposedly pretty terrible. But I wouldn't blame anyone for being excited for a Princess Di biopic based based on this simple,stark poster that makes great use of negative space while doing something creatively interesting with its placement of title and credits. In this case, showing Naomi Watts from a distance and even kind of downplaying her star value might be a positive since we all know the actress's physical resemblance to the late Princess of Whales is minimal at best. But here, from this angle, in that pose, she's her double. Based on this classy image, if I didn't know any better, I'd think this movie does for Diana what Gandhi did for Gandhi. False advertising? Probably. Smart advertising? Absolutely.

9. Salinger

In case you didn't hear, JD Salinger was a pedophile who was once married to a Nazi.  At least that's according to Shane Salerno's much maligned documentary that treats rare sightings of the late, reclusive author with the bombast of a Discovery special on Bigfoot. Everything turns out to be info you wish you could unhear, and while the sensationalistic presentation seems to be the very antithesis of what the author stood for in his work, this poster isn't. Yes, it was probably easy to design. Yes, it's obvious. And yes, it's plagiarism (insert sound of author rolling in his grave). But what's most surprising is that they were smart enough to do it. There couldn't have possibly been a cleaner, more respectful design for the film, which of course is a cruel irony considering the treatment of its subject. Salinger would have a good laugh at this. Before suing them. 

8. Computer Chess

This low-budget, 80's set satire depicting a chess tournament pitting nerdy computer programmers against each another wasn't the easiest watch for me, despite it being frequently heralded as one of the year's best. But I love this U.K. quad poster, which was designed by Atari 2600 cover artist Cliff Spohn. The man responsible for the classic box art for Asteroids, Defender and Video Chess actually came out of retirement to design this and it's hard to argue it wasn't worth it. Poster art doesn't get much better than this. Chalk it up as another win in the column for hand drawn illustration. It almost makes me want to revisit the film in hopes that I'll be proven wrong and see something that even slightly resembles the greatness hinted at in this design. The movie is different and one-of-a-kind. I'll give it that. But the poster? Even more so.

7. Short Term 12

So many questions. Where's the kid going? Why is he draped in an American flag cape? Why is he screaming? Who are these people chasing him? A poster is supposed to tease and you want to find out more. I kind of know the answers to a couple of these just based on reviews and write-ups but now it apparently must be seen (as if the presence of the always awesome Brie Larson wasn't already enough). Grabbing images from the film or capturing characters in motion have resulted in some real disasters (just see worst list below) but this print is basically a clinic on how it can be done right. From the yellowish filter used, to the positioning, size and font of the title, to the screaming kid coming right at us, this is a winner all-around. And I do like that effect of the title being blinded out by the sky. There were also some impressive illustrated prints for the movie, but this easily takes it. Quietly one of the best reviewed movies of the year, you definitely feel every bit of that promise bursting through here.

6. Afternoon Delight

This little seen indie made some waves when Quentin Tarantino revealed it as his favorite film of 2013 back in October. While the verdict's still out on that, I can at least get on board with its poster, which easily amongst the most eye-catching. You just can't go wrong with neon. If there were an alternate neon version of every poster I wouldn't complain, but this is a reminder that it really only works as a novelty that can best be appreciated under the right circumstances. Bringing in a stripper to spice up your marriage qualifies. This has been done better before, but there's no denying this is top notch work, sparking interest in a movie where there would have been none.  

5. Nebraska
The most predictable entry on this list is no less effective because of it. It's a simple, haunting silouette of Bruce Dern that tells us exactly what the movie's about, while simultaneously revealing nothing. While it remains to be seen whether this can be said for the film itself, if this were done in color it just wouldn't have carried nearly the same impact. I also really like the 70's style credit presentation on the bottom, which is fitting considering everything we've heard about the character-based, throwback style of Alexander Payne's latest. The design is so simple that it's a wonder there aren't more posters like it. But that's probably a good thing since it only makes this layout seem that much more unique and inspired.

4. Rewind This!

Appropriately, the influence of old school, hand drawn posters are on full display with a one-sheet that would look great in anyone's den. I'd tell you this is documentary about about the impact of VHS and home video, but it's not even necessary. This design tells you all that and more. This "kitchen sink" 80's throwback approach doesn't always work and has honestly been a bit overused of late, but when it's called for, as it is here, few styles can match it. Besides the art work being quite a few notches above what we'd expect and the illustrated design style matching the time period and subject being covered, it just looks immensely cool. Anyone longing to be transported to the '80's when videocassettes ruled the day needn't look any further. Also love the retro futuristic font style of the title. Whoever this unknown artist is really nailed it.

3. √Čvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

One of the big highlights of √Čvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie are cleverly animated vignettes that  randomly appear during the documentary, which profiles the rise and fall of the controversial eighties talk show host. What you see above is that animation in all it's glory. The film makes a damn good case that he's the forefather of trash TV and a precursor to the Glenn Becks and Jerry Springers with footage that's shocking even by today's standards. Brash, obnoxious and in-your-face, there's no better image that encapsulates the loudmouth who briefly turned TV upside down with his confrontational antics. It's the only poster on this list that's actually kind of scary, presenting a caricature that certainly doesn't veer far from reality. The use of the red, white and blue for the titles is brilliant and unnerving. Yes, it kind of recalls Pink Floyd The Wall poster but not nearly enough to claim it's doing any more than paying tribute. When did documentary posters get this good?

2. Escape From Tomorrow

Lawyer up. If it wasn't enough that filmmaker Randy Moore covertly (and illegally) shot a black-and- white horror movie on handheld cameras and iPhones at Disneyland and Disney World, the poster basically rubs the company's noses in it with an image that defaces the company's historic iconography. Disney did the right thing by ignoring it, as a long, drawn out legal battle would have just brought more attention to the film while making them look like bullies. As a result, the movie flew under the radar and kind of faded away. But this poster never will. It's basically a masterpiece in promotional design and I still can't believe they got away with it. Using Mickey's hand and even cribbing the classic Disney font. Talk about asking for trouble. The colors and details here are tremendous enough that this would be able to fool anyone into thinking that Disney's branching into R-rated horror. And yet it's so clean and simple, with a tagline that absolutely kills. "Bad Things Happen Everywhere."  No wonder this is going for big bucks on eBay. It's worth every penny.

1. Spring Breakers

As divisive and polarizing a film as Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers was, it seemed the one thing everyone could agree on was that it was one of the most beautifully shot movies of the year. Even those who considered it a piece of trash (and many did) at least had to respect the technical expertise that went into it and admit cinematographer Benoit Debie is owed an Oscar nomination for the neon colored nightmare he engulfs viewers in. At the start of the year a top contender for my favorite poster would have been that first creepy Spring Breakers teaser you see below. Then I saw this. Again, grabbing a screenshot and plastering it on a poster is problematic in most cases, but this isn't most cases. Alien's oceanside serenade to the girls is undeniably the defining visual moment of the film, coming during what's easily the most memorable sequence. That the marketing team had the wherewithal to know that and use it on the poster is impressive enough, but it's really the colors and the Ralph Steadman style title font that takes this to the next level. You don't see typography like that every day, but it fits perfectly here. Talk about the replicating the experience of watching the movie. This is the movie. All of it. Captured perfectly in a single, unforgettable image.


And The Worst...

Well, that didn't take long. Riding high after last year's Silver Linings comeback, DeNiro's back at it again, cashing those checks. But look how many big names he's dragged along with him this time (though Heigl probably deserves it). And, hey, doesn't this Robin Williams role look familiar? Amanda Seyfried's expression is priceless and accurate: "Get Me Out of Here."

                                Coming soon to V.O.D. and Redbox. A movie. Starring three airbrushed people.With a happy ending.

You're marketing a movie called The Lifeguard starring Kristen Bell and your only job is to place a photo of the actress in a swimsuit on the poster. And you mess it up! You'd never know from the above image, but the movie isn't a romantic comedy and nowhere near this sunny and cheerful.

An attempt to go artsy and minimalistic goes haywire with this design as that thing hangs helplessly in the air. If not for the title I wouldn't be able to properly identify this as a little girl and figuring out she was on a swing took even longer. Whatever it is, it sure doesn't look comfortable. As if "From The Producers of The Kids Are All Right" wasn't enough of a warning to keep me away. 

                                                            Well, you can't say the title isn't oddly appropriate. Love that tagline.

How fitting is this? It's as if Stallone and DeNiro each realized their posters are so bad separately that they'll combine forces to really give us the worst imaginable. While it's not quite THAT bad and some of the alternates for this are actually pretty decent, this is still embarrassing. And what's with all that text? 

It was tough choosing exactly which character poster from The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was (un)worthy of placement here. I'm kidding. I immediately picked Alan Arkin's. Just look at it. It's Alan Arkin. As a magician. Named Rance Halloway. I kind of want to see this now.

Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, Lay The Favorite, Delivery Man, The Internship. You'd have this expression too.

Finally, one of 1999's lowest grossing, action packed thrillers arrives on DVD and VHS. Paranoia is available for a limited time only at participating Best Buy locations for the bargain bin price of $2.99. Act now and you'll receive this free theatrical poster, which features the first image of TRON 3.0, starring Liam Hemsworth.  

Maybe the sloppiest, laziest poster of the year. And that's saying something. At least the ones above are interestingly bad in a fun way. Nothing of the sort is true about this. Glum and poorly realized in both idea and execution, it's bland enough on its own that photoshopping the three additional actors in there seems like excessive punishment.  

What's sad about this is that Iron Man 3 is surprisingly entertaining. It deserved a really good poster. Instead, it predictably got the treatment every other Marvel film does. I actually even prefer this instead.

See above. But far worse. Just look how much is going on here, and yet it's still impossible to make out any of it. If i didn't know better. Is this a parody of a superhero movie?

What do you get when you combine the posters of Iron Man and Transformers? Apparently this one for Pacific Rim. There were so many bad ones for this that they were basically interchangeable. All these summer blockbuster posters look exactly the same. Same colors. Same title font. Same explosions. I'm convinced there's just one guy sitting in an office somewhere designing these for every studio.

poster images via