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Inside Llewyn Davis DVD Review

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) movie poster Inside Llewyn Davis

Theatrical Release: December 6, 2013 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: R

Writers/Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Max Casella (Pappi Corsicato), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein), Jerry Grayson (Mel Novikoff), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody/Arthur Milgrum), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson), Alex Karpovsky (Marty Green), Helen Hong (Janet Fung), Bradley Mott (Joe Flom), Michael Rosner (Arlen Gamble), Bonnie Rose (Dodi Gamble), Jack O'Connell (Elevator Attendant), Ricardo Cordero (Nunzio), Sylvia Kauders (Ginny), Ian Jarvis (Mr. Cromartie), Steve Routman (Abortion Doctor), Nancy Blake (Elizabeth Hobby), Stephen Payne (Mr. Hobby), Benjamin Pike (Young Bob Dylan), Stan Carp (Hugh Davis - uncredited)

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After more than twenty years of making movies that were critically respected but scarcely attended, Joel and Ethan Coen were thrust into the spotlight for their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men,
which also became by far their most commercially successful film to date. Their Oscar victories for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay solidified the brothers' place in Hollywood and cemented them as perennial awards contenders. But neither those accolades nor the unprecedented popularity of their 2010 True Grit remake have diminished the Coens' taste for challenging, offbeat fare.

For proof of that, see Inside Llewyn Davis, a glum original dramedy that performed very much in line with their early '90s efforts. Like Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, Llewyn was given glowing reviews but could not find much of an audience in limited release, despite the Coens' ever-rising profile, a bit of star power, and an abundance of award season buzz that didn't amount to much more than scattered critic circle honors.

A struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) rides the New York City subway with a couple's tabby cat in the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."

The film is set over the course of a week in February 1961 and centers on struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). The half of a duo that did not jump to his death off the George Washington Bridge, Llewyn has talent but not much luck. He's broke, lacking even a winter coat and forced to perpetually crash on others' couches or floors. His regular gigs at the Gaslight Cafe, where he performs morose, poetic songs, do nothing to help him break through. His elderly manager doesn't have money or work for him, just a box full of his old albums that aren't selling.

Llewyn wanders around, scrounging to raise money to pay for the abortion of what might be his child with his friend's girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), getting a last-minute call to contribute vocals to a novelty song (the lively, catchy, Oscar-ineligible "Please Mr. Kennedy") by the aforementioned friend (Justin Timberlake), and driving to Chicago with an outspoken jazz musician (John Goodman) and his laconic valet (Garrett Hedlund). There are also encounters with three different orange tabby cats who at different times end up in Llewyn's custody or close proximity.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has a complicated relationship with pregnant fellow folk singer Jean (Carey Mulligan). Taking the backseat on a drive to Chicago, jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) bombards Llewyn with his thoughts and opinions.

Of the Coens' oeuvre, the film most closely resembles A Serious Man, that '60s-set drama where numerous bad things befell a college professor. That film, a Best Picture nominee of 2009 when there were ten nominees (but a likely miss had it preceded the switch to a variable field that always seems to equal nine),
found the Coens' sharing ideas and some autobiographical elements of interest to them without much regard for whether moviegoers would relate or care.

That's a fair way to describe Llewyn, which relies heavily on conveying the New York folk music scene just prior to Bob Dylan's arrival. There's a good amount of music with minimal impact on the narrative. There's also a good amount of story with minimal impact on the narrative. That road trip to Chicago gives us eleven minutes of John Goodman displaying his comfort in bold characterization while delivering Coen brother prose as he has many times before. And it leads to the most stinging and definitive of Llewyn's numerous rejections. But lose that sequence and the movie doesn't dramatically change. In fact, there isn't much of the movie that seems impossible to sacrifice. Atmosphere trumps story here and though it is appealing atmosphere, crafted with love and technical skill from these old pros, with any other filmmakers' names on it, I don't think this movie gets 94% critical approval and average ratings in the high 8s out of 10 on Rotten Tomatoes. Nor does its omission from all but a couple of technical categories at the Academy Awards register as a snub or even moderately surprising.

The Coens have always been an acquired taste and that's a key part of their appeal. Time and again, their films have floundered in theaters only to be discovered on home video and develop into cult classics. Even their most quoted of films -- The Big Lebowski -- underperformed in theaters before finding an audience. After True Grit made the writers/directors more accessible than ever before, Inside Llewyn Davis returns them to their wheelhouse of unusual, untidy, largely unresolved storytelling, the kind that divides and deters viewers. From its unredeemed, abrasive protagonist to his hopeless journey, this film deals in quantities that will deflate the spirits of those watching. It's an interesting ride full of compelling technique and unconventional artistry that stand out to seasoned movie watchers, but it's also one that leaves even those in appreciation feeling slightly unfulfilled.

The Coens' unwillingness to conform leaves viewers scouting out answers to puzzles that emerge (e.g. a repeated scene that plays slightly differently the second time around) and hatching theories ("Llewyn is the cat! It says so right in the movie!"). While there is much to like here, there's always danger in assigning too much credit when we supply the interpretations the movie openly invites. Not every film needs to spell everything out for viewers and gift-wrap a neat resolution at its end, but cold and vague does not equal brilliance.

The first CBS Films release nominated for an Academy Award, Inside Llewyn Davis hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who regrettably sent the DVD edition for this review.

Inside Llewyn Davis DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Subtitled in English
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $30.99
Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray ($35.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Cinematography was one of two areas for which Inside Llewyn Davis was Oscar-nominated. With their trusted longtime DP Roger Deakins busy with Skyfall, the Coens enlisted Bruno Delbonnel, who gives the film a gray, milky, dreamlike 1.85:1 look. The DVD's anamorphic widescreen clearly lacks the detail of high definition, but it is not troubled in any noticeable way. In fact, it looks pretty terrific for DVD. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack makes it easy to understand and appreciate the film's nomination for Best Sound Mixing. Elements like whirring trains complement the satisfying live recording of songs.

Writers-directors Ethan and Joel Coen look characteristically ill at ease in their "Inside 'Inside Llewyn Davis'" interviews. The DVD's main menu remains fixed on Llewyn Davis performing with lit cigarette in mouth.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The only thing on the disc besides the movie is "Inside Inside Llewyn Davis" (42:42), a thorough making-of documentary that delves into this January-February 2012 New York production. It takes us behind the scenes on sets and in the recording studio where songs were pre-recorded/rehearsed (to later be recorded live for the film). The Coens explain their desire to dramatize New York's folk music scene pre-Dylan and using Dave Van Ronk's life as a starting point.
They also acknowledge their musical contributors (especially executive producer T Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and Justin Timberlake), address period production design, and briefly reveal the challenges of working with cats, while Oscar Isaac reflects on the film's simultaneously tragic and comedic nature. Marring the piece slightly is its unbecoming low frame rate.

No trailers for this or any other movie plays or can be played. The menus are static and silent, save for the main screen, which is scored and seemingly modeled after an old concert poster.

Inside the uncut, unslipcovered Eco-Box, an insert provides a code for the Digital UltraViolet stream included with your purchase, while the other advertises the film's soundtrack and a quartet of Sony Blu-rays.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) shrugs off integrity and signs away royalties to get paid for adding his voice to the novelty song "Please Mr. Kennedy" alongside Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that many will have difficulty warming to or making sense of. The Coen brothers again apply their considerable cinematic gifts to a distinctive and original story. But though engaging and atmospheric, this strange, meandering journey will leave even admirers somewhat unfulfilled.

The DVD impresses with the inclusion of a thorough 42-minute making-of documentary and first-rate picture and sound that I can only assume are better on Blu-ray.

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Related Reviews:
Coen Brothers: A Serious Man The Big Lebowski True Grit No Country for Old Men Blood Simple.
Oscar Competition: Nebraska Prisoners Gravity Captain Phillips The Grandmaster
Oscar Isaac: 10 Years Drive W./E. Body of Lies | Carey Mulligan: An Education The Great Gatsby
Justin Timberlake: In Time Bad Teacher The Love Guru | John Goodman: Argo Flight The Hangover Part III Arachnophobia
Max Casella: Blue Jasmine Killing Them Softly Newsies | Adam Driver: Frances Ha | Garrett Hedlund: Tron: Legacy
Nashville Big Sur The Counselor The Iran Job

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Reviewed March 10, 2014.



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