Inside Llewyn Davis (US - DVD R1)
Jonathan revisits his favorite film of 2013 in standard definition...
Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles - some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, Llewyn's misadventures take him from the baskethouses of Greenwich Village to an empty Chicago club - on an odyssey to audition for a music mogul - and back again. (From the Sony synopsis)
I don't know how the Coen Brothers keep doing it. They've always been a favorite of mine since I saw Raising Arizona at a young age, and they have managed to constantly to surprise me throughout their career. Every year I have one or two new movies that I just obsess about and can't stop revisiting, sometimes just days apart. Drive and Holy Motors are recent examples, but this year it is just Inside Llewyn Davis. I've found that their latest is an experience that keeps on giving. It is a simple story of a struggling folk singer, couch surfing and looking for success as a solo artist, and not having any luck whatsoever. But as always, the Coens have so much more going on. They fill their cinematic world with playful symbolism and historical details that are fun to get lost in. You could watch it as a movie about the cyclical and destructive nature of depression. Matt Singer wrote an interesting take for The Dissolve where he suggests this may be the Coen Brothers contemplating life as a solo act. You could even dedicate an entire viewing to studying a cat in the movie.
Then there's the wonderful music. The Coen Brothers are no stranger to great music, and this is the most notable music they've used in a project since O Brother Where Art Thou?, and they are once again collaborating with the awesome T Bone Burnett. Instead of original songs, everything in Inside Llewyn Davis is a recreation of an older song. There's everything from the obnoxious but fun "Please Mr. Kennedy" to a heartrending interpretation of the old English ballad "The Death of Queen Jane". In the special features it is claimed that most of the singing was done on set, and if that's true then I am in awe of the quality. Oscar Isaac is a gifted folk performer. When Llewyn sits down and plays his guitar there is no question that he deserves more recognition.
The Coens continue to assemble wonderful casts. Carey Mulligan gets a chance to be awfully mean. Justin Timberlake's musical talents are well utilized. The most memorable supporting performance is without a doubt John Goodman as Roland Turner; a jazz musician based loosely on Doc Pomus who has no problem saying exactly what is on his mind. Llweyn's journey eventually takes him to the Gate of Horn where he plays for Bud Grossman, the Coen's take on the legendary folk music manager Albert Grossman, who is brilliantly cast as F. Murray Abraham - Amadeus's patron saint of mediocrities. The result of Llewyn's audition is one of those perfectly executed moments where you don't know if you should feel utter devastation for the character, or break out laughing.
The Coen Brothers are gifted at balancing between materials that are depressing and hilarious, sometimes very much at the same time. This was most apparent in A Serious Man; a movie I found hysterical but many thought was just too cruel to its characters. Inside Llewyn Davis feels closer in tone to A Serious Man than the rest of their body of work, but you get the feeling Llewyn has brought it upon himself in many scenes. Yet even when he was being a total jerk, I found myself fully understanding of his frustrations and rooting for him. And though the lead doesn't end up in a better place than he started, I found the final scenes strangely uplifting. In the end, the story structure resembles a soulful folk song. This is largely thanks to Oscar Isaac's tonally perfect performance, and I will continue to whine for ages about him not receiving a nomination from the Academy. This is a movie about a folk singer who did not obtain recognition, and Inside Llewyn David barely got any attention from the Academy. I'd like to think the Coen Brothers would find humor in that.
This is the kind of DVD transfer that makes me feel cynical, leading me to believe studios just don't care about the DVD format anymore. As part of the Austin Film Critics Association I get award screeners toward the end of the year. Usually these are not great quality and are just meant to give us a means of seeing the movie. My screener of Inside Llewyn Davis has a higher quality transfer than this official DVD release. It's even more disappointing when I see that another 3-4GB of disc space could've been used to give us a higher quality transfer. This is the style of movie that could use it too. The visuals have a strong glowing style to them, with characters often spot lit in underground basket houses. The harsh lighting lends itself to banding and halos very easily, and the quality of the image is noticeably worse in these scenes. I picked up the Blu-ray copy for myself and it does not suffer from compression artefacts. If you own a Blu-ray player there is no reason to settle for this DVD edition.
The audio department doesn't take nearly as hard of a hit. Despite not having the lossless HD audio, this movie still sounds great in this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Both Llewyn's gentle ballads and the busier "Please Mr.Kennedy" fill the sound space up appropriately. It lacks the dynamic range of a lossless track, but that is to be expected on the format. Instruments still sound distinct and the mix generously fills the room from every angle during the lively songs, as it should. I never had to adjust the volume due to music being too loud or dialogue being too quiet. In non-music scenes you can make out appropriate ambient noise that recreates the scene nicely. This is most noticeable during the cold driving scenes at nighttime. You can hear the gentle whiz of cars passing by and the shifting direction from one channel to the next. As far as DVD soundtracks go there is nothing to complain about here.
The only feature is Inside "Inside Llewyn Davis" (42:42), but it's a good one. Behind the scenes footage is spliced with interviews including the Coen Brothers, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and music producer T Bone Burnett among many others. They encompass a lot in this one feature, such as the inspiration they got from Dave Van Ronk, and why they wanted to shoot a film in this era. They talk about discovering Oscar Isaac and a bunch of footage is shown of the actors/singers collaborating with T Bone Burnett to create the versions of the songs used in the movies. There's also a good but brief look into the set design and cinematography process. It's a bit all over the place, but there is some good material here. It enhanced my appreciation of the film.
Inside Llewyn Davis may seem deceptively simple up front, but it is every bit as rich in detail and thoughtful storytelling as any other picture the Coen Brothers have made. If having them at the helm isn't reason enough to see it, the wonderful music and a pitch perfect performance from lead Oscar Isaac make this a must see. Sony’s DVD is a disappointment in the video department, but you’ll still get a good listening experience with this standard definition release. There’s only one extra but fans should enjoy it.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 11th March 2014
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Inside "Inside Llweyn Davis"
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Length: 104 minutes
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