Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Criterion Collection: Inside Llewyn Davis Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
The visionary chroniclers of eccentric Americana Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) present one of their greatest creations in Llewyn Davis, a singer barely eking out a living on the peripheries of the flourishing Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties. As embodied by Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), in a revelatory performance, Llewyn (loosely modeled on off-the-radar folk legend Dave Van Ronk) is extraordinarily talented but also irascible, rude, and self-defeating. Our man’s circular odyssey through an unforgiving wintry cityscape, evocatively captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), is realized with poignant humor and the occasional surreal touch. Featuring a folk soundtrack curated by T Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis reminds us that in the Coens’ world, history isn’t necessarily written by the winners.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)
The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is a tribute to New York's folk scene and its singer/songwriters set in the sixties. As we follow the travails of the title character played by Oscar Isaac, we quickly learn that the life of a folk singer is a hard one, especially since the advent of rock and roll is on the horizon. Homeless and poor, Davis abuses the few friendships he has by rotating between them to sleep on the couch and eat their food. He replays that kindness with sleeping with one of his friends girlfriends (Carey Mulligan) and getting her pregnant, or losing their cat, or insulting them if they get a good break on their singing career. It's hard to believe that anyone could be his friend, and in fact a good portion of the movie contains Davis being called out for his behavior by many. 

Faced with professional extinction, Davis desperately tries to carve out a slice of success but every time he is given a chance to get ahead he sabotages himself in some way. Whether that's getting him thrown out of a club for being rude to other singers, or not showing up for a paid gig with a guitar, or deliberately picking the wrong song to sing for an audition, Davis seems as determined to fail as he is to be acknowledged as a real folk singer. Despite wanting to be a folk singer as a profession, Davis disdains anyone else that "makes" it before him. When his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) even gets him a paying gig to play on his new song along with Al Cody (Adam Driver) in the studio, Davis can't help but mock the song even though he really needs the money. 

When given a free meal, he refuses to sing for his supper as he believes he's above it all and it's a challenge to his integrity as an artist. He is even more dismissive of people like his family that have decided to live a normal life  as he believes that they are simply existing and not really living. However, when real life gets a little too tough for him, Davis hitches a ride to Chicago along with a beat poet named Johnny Fives (Garrett Hedlund) and the obnoxious jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman). Turner spends the entire car ride mercilessly needling Davis, so when Turner collapses from a heroin overdose, neither Davis or Johnny Fives are that worried about it. It's just another step in the journey for Davis in his own personal odyssey. And to be honest, that's not even his worst obstacle to overcome during this movie. 

The cast is perfectly cast as they always are in a Coen brothers movie and Oscar Isaac does wonders making such an unlikable person still someone for the audience to kind of root for. Longtime Coen collaborator John Goodman once again provides a memorable character as the nasty Turner whose fate is left undecided. Like Davis, if he survives, he will most likely never learn from his mistake. The supporting actors are all also good and it was amusing to me to see Isaac and Driver singing together, considering that their next team up would have them on opposite sides in The Force Awakens (see the funny video that pokes fun at that concept below). Inside Llewyn Davis  feels like a very different kind of movie for the Coens, but it was original and well done. 
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
One of the things I love about Criterion is the fact that they always try to get the filmmakers to sign off on their transfers, which also occurred on this one. As stated in the liner notes, this transfer was "approved by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, [and] this digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Spirit 4K film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at Technicolor PostWorks in New York. The 1080p transfer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film's muted colors are intentional as the world in which Davis moves is dreary and washed out deliberately. The black levels are solid and the contrast is also very good. There's no digital defects to complain about as this is an excellent transfer. 
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Inside Llewyn Davis' sole audio option is an excellent  DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that has been mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD. This mix does a nice job delivering clear dialogue and offers a nice bit of range for the various singing performances. For a movie of this kind, this mix does a great job.
Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
As usual, there's a bunch of good special features included, many of them have been created solely for this Criterion release. 
  • Audio Commentary - Featuring writers Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz, and created for this release, the writers focus more on the real history and scene of this time period than the movie. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in this commentary and I would have preferred someone focusing on the movie itself and had included the Coens or someone like Guillermo del Toro.
  • The First Hundred Feet, the Last Hundred Feet - This is my favorite extra on the set as it's always great to hear from the filmmakers themselves, especially when they are being interviewed by director Guillermo del Toro. They talk about the evolution of their approach and they movies that have inspired them (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Third Man, The Conformist, and Mad Max). 
  • Inside “Inside Llewyn Davis - This is a forty-five-minute  documentary from 2013 that features most of the cast among others talking about the making of the film and the inspirations it drew from.
  • Another Place, Another Time (2014) - This is a very original concept as I don't recall an entire concert being included as an extra before. But that's what this is as this is a 101-minute film documenting an Inside Llewyn Davis tribute concert, featuring Joan Baez, Mumford & Sons, Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Jack White, and others. I enjoyed it more that I expected to.
  • The Way of Folk - This featurette features music producer T Bone Burnett and the Coens talking about the folk scene and some of the songs included in the movie.
  • Before the Flood - A look at singer Dave Van Ronk and the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties, featuring music writer and historian Elijah Wald.
  • Sunday - This is a short 1961 documentary by Dan Drasin about the riots that took place in Washington Square Park after folk musicians were prevented from gathering and playing there
  • Essay by film critic Kent Jones as a booklet included in the case.
  • Trailers
    Summary (5 out of 5 stars)
    While Inside Llewyn Davis isn't my favorite Coen brothers film, I did enjoy it and it offers a nice original alternative to today's movies. I never thought that a movie about folk singers would be made by the Coens, but here it as and it has a lot to offer, including an excellent cast. Oscar Isaac is perfect in this role and it's even more impressive to know that he actually played and sang all of his songs in the movie. If you are looking for something different, give this movie a chance! 

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