Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies



Director Alexander Payne Stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk USA 2013 Language English 1hr 55 mins Black & white

World-weary father and son road trip

Alexander Payne doesn’t appear to be a man in a hurry – he’s made six feature films since 1996, and those films don’t usually race along. His characters often seem to be struggling with depression and midlife crises, but that doesn’t stop the films from sometimes being very funny. I loved Election and Sideways, thought Citizen Ruth was OK, didn’t like About Schmidt and never got around to seeing The Descendants, partly because I was put off by a godawful trailer (I know, I know).

With Nebraska, his aim seems to be to make something like his previous films, only more so. While The Descendants took him off to colourful Hawaii, as its title announces, Nebraska brings him back (eventually) to his own state. The two central characters are a man in his seventies whose memory is going, and his middle-aged son whose life is not so much going nowhere as going backwards. It’s a film populated by taciturn, often real-looking Midwesterners. It’s filmed in grainy black and white, and visits flat landscapes and towns that might be suffering from the current economic trough, but equally might have been struggling since the Great Depression. Glamorous it ain’t.

A lot of the fuss about this film is to do with the performance of Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a cantankerous old drinker convinced he has won a million dollars in a prize draw. Dern was one of the big stars of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, but hasn’t had much good work in a long time. And he is terrific here as the sometimes befuddled, frequently silent and occasionally sharp Woody. Will Forte plays David, the son who reluctantly agrees to drive Woody the 700 or so miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to try to claim his prize. Along the way, David decides it would be a good idea to stop by their former hometown and see the extended family. And that’s how Nebraska slides from being a road movie into one about small-town life. The Montana Grants might have their problems, but they turn out to be a dynamic and ambitious bunch compared with the ones who stayed in Nebraska. The film’s funniest characters are David’s two terrible cousins, Bart and Cole, who are fat, lazy, dumb and unpleasant.

I was surprised about how much David learns about Woody over the course of the movie. I’m not sure why that was unexpected – maybe I instinctively think that Payne is a slightly less conventional film-maker than he is. Not that slow piecing together of a life, with all its messiness and suppressed tragedies and all the rest, is a bad way for a film to spend its time. I also thought the ending was more upbeat – in its way – than some critics have suggested. Maybe what qualifies as a cheerful conclusion by my standards is a pretty bleak one by yours.

There are lots of good performances here – June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering but far from stoic wife, Bob Odenkirk (Saul from Breaking Bad) as his more successful son, and Stacy Keach, still as sinister as ever, if a little battered, as his ex-business partner and enemy, plus the massed ranks of the largely wordless, motionless Grant men.

If I have one problem with the film, it’s the music, which seems like a horrible cliché of this kind of low-key kind of film. It’s music that says ‘gentle and that little bit quirky’. Nebraska is better than that. 


Funny People

Director Judd Apatow Stars Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Lesley Mann USA 2009 Language English 2hrs 26mins Colour

 Apatow meets Sandler, sprawling comedy-drama results

 Many years ago, I watched a film called Husbands. I was very excited, because it was the first film I had seen made by John Cassavetes, who, depending on how you classify things, can be considered the first of the great American independent directors. It starred Peter Falk! Gotta love Peter Falk! And Ben Gazzara! (Later on, I did one of my favourite interviews ever with Mr Gazzara). And Cassavetes himself, a powerful if always cold and creepy screen presence.

And god it was hard to watch – shapeless, never-ending, out of control. Cassavetes loved the improvisational work his actors had done, and didn’t want to ape the big studios by dumping most of this in the bin. My memory (I’d be interested to watch the film again) was that he was horribly wrong, and the film was a gruelling mess.

So what does John Cassavetes, heroically uncompromising maker of low-budget 1970s dramas, have to do with the monstrously successful Judd Apatow, responsible for a long stream of 21st-century hit comedies including The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up? In a way, quite a lot*. Both regularly work(ed) with a rep company of friends and family who were welcome to make a creative contribution to the movies. The downside of this potentially interesting process is sprawling movies. And at almost two and a half hours, Funny People – written, produced and directed by Apatow – is a very baggy film indeed.

The plot is simple. George Simmons, a star of Adam Sandleresque comedies played by Adam Sandler, learns he has advanced leukaemia. In the existential crisis that follows he decides to return to stand-up and hires young comedian Ira (Apatow regular Seth Rogen) as his writer and gopher. Belatedly, he attempts to reconnect with the people he estranged along the way, including his sister, his parents and the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann, aka Mrs Apatow).

But hang on! Let’s not forget Ira, because this is Ira’s story too. So we also plunge into his friendship/rivalry with his flatmates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the writer-star of a terrible sitcom called Yo, Teach. And his crush on Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), their neighbour and another aspiring stand-up. Got that?

It’s too little and too much. Not a lot actually happens. We, inevitably, get a large number of scenes of stand-up, mostly not very funny despite the high-profile stars. Less explicably, we get a scene in which Simmons – backed by musicians he’s played to come and jam with him – sings the whole of the mediocre John Lennon offcut Real Love.

It’s one of a dozen or so scenes in this film crying out to be consigned to DVD extras. Likewise most of the scenes in which Simmons hangs out with his peers – Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman etc as themselves… It’s been done before, it’s been done better. It’s passingly amusing to see Eminem insult Ray Romano, but doesn’t justify the tedious build-up.

But if George and his famous chums are bad, the Apatow daughters are still to come. Granted, they are perfectly competent actresses, but they get loads of unnecessary screen time. The film reaches its nadir when we are meant to realise that George hasn’t learnt any lessons from his brush with death when he gets bored and plays with his phone while being forced to watch a video of one of the little Apatows singing Memory from Cats. This is Judd Apatow openly picking a fight with any member of the audience who doesn’t find his precocious little brats heartbreaking. (Eric Bana, incidentally, often terrible in American movies, has a couple of decent moments during this stretch of the film).

So what’s Apatow told us over this epic span of time? That comedians are often miserable. That facing death doesn’t automatically make a person a saint. That showbiz friends fuck one each other over. That clinging on to the idea of the love of your life years after the relationship ended is not healthy. None of these are remotely new thoughts. None are presented here from a new angle, nor an entertaining one. The real lesson here is you have to have real discipline to work with your chums and kids, and Judd Apatow lacks that.

The best thing about Funny People is The Rza, who plays a guy who works at a deli with Ira. He’s in the film for about five minutes. That probably says all you need to know.

*Sometimes you spot one of these connections, and get it into your head that, say, someone is ripping off something it actually turns out they have never seen. And other times, you do a bit of reading afterwards and find out that, yes, Apatow was consciously trying to drink of the spirit of Cassavetes here


Radio On

Director Chris Petit Stars David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer UK/West Germany 1980 Language English, German 1hr 44mins Black & white

London could have been Helsinki, even Copenhagen!

There aren’t many legendary British indie films, and still less those made by an erstwhile critic. What Radio On feels like is the beginning of something that never was*. It’s both rooted in very British things, and yet fits into an international film story somewhere between the early films of Wim Wenders – who helped make it possible for Chris Petit to make this one – and the work of Jim Jarmusch (also mentored by Wenders) and Aki Kaurismaki. It resembles the films of those latter two in its framing, its pacing, the importance of songs, the taciturn characters, a retro feel for style (clothes, cars) – but not, crucially, in its sense of humour, which only surfaces fleetingly.

Radio On is the moody tale of Robert (David Beames), who DJs in a factory on the A4 and lives above a cinema. He sets off by road from London to Bristol following a family tragedy. The drive takes up a fair chunk of the film, and along the way there’s a sort-of amusing cameo from someone who was just about to become a huge star.

Then the German undercurrent that started off with someone listening to the German version of Bowie’s Heroes and the gift of three Kraftwerk tapes early in the film takes over and it rather randomly turns into a quasi sequel to Wenders’ Alice In The Cities.

This is a film in which a lot of miles are covered but not a lot happens and less is resolved. This is deliberate, but it also makes it hard work to watch. It’s nicely shot in high-contrast black and white, and the scenes on the road are good, as are some of the shots of far west London, for a long time the most modern part of the city.

But Robert isn’t an engaging character, even taking into account the fact that he is understandably traumatised. There’s a vague sense of a point or two being made – about politics, about England, but at this distance it’s hard to work out what those might be**. There’s enough to make it watchable, not enough to make it much more than that. Not unless you’re interested in the history of British film, in which case it’s a fascinating what-might-have-been.

*Chris Petit is still better known as a writer, I guess – he has directed other things over the years, the only one of which I have seen is London Orbital, the film about the M25 he made with Iain Sinclair. Best described as hypnotic.

**Other than the standard ‘English men aren’t comfortable with their emotions.’ Yeah. Anyway, for a more positive take, John Patterson, a former colleague and one of the best writers on film around, explains why he rates Radio On here. Patterson is probably right about what Petit was up to – Simon Reynolds also has some thoughts on that. All I can say is that I find Petit’s depiction of alienation, well, alienating.


Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)

Director Wim Wenders Stars Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer West Germany/France 1977 Language German (with English subtitles), French, English 2hr 5mins Colour

'What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?'

Poor Wim Wenders. Fate played a nasty trick on him: it gave him the friendship of Bono, surely a terrible thing in itself, but which also resulted in The Million Dollar Hotel, the second worst film ever made by a major director. It has a wretchedness that truly is all its own – 13 years after I saw it, the thought still makes me shudder.

Not that Bono is solely responsible for Wenders’ fall from grace. I think there’s something big and empty, pompous and silly about his work from the mid-’80s onwards. But The American Friend comes from the 1970s, during what saner critics generally consider his prime.

It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, reputedly loosely. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t back that up, but Tom Ripley as played by Dennis Hopper is a long way from his other movie incarnations.

He’s running an art scam between New York and Hamburg, where he lives in a crumbling neo-classical mansion, and goes in for exaggerated Americanisms – huge early ’60s car, pool table and jukebox, cowboy hat. His hustle brings him into contact with Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), a skilled picture framer suffering from a rare blood disease. That (indirectly) leads to Jonathan being offered a large sum of money to carry out a mob hit, the kind of cash that could his family afloat if his condition were to kill him.

It’s Jonathan rather than Ripley who is the central character here, a man instantly out of his depth in the criminal world. There is an anticipation of Breaking Bad, of how the initial sincere, if misguided, intention soon spirals into something very messy. Ganz is excellent as the scared, conflicted and occasionally giddy Jonathan.

Wenders is often considered something of an heir to Michelangelo Antonioni, but compared to The Passenger, this is a fairly straight thriller, with action and scares and some stunts. (Perhaps as a measure of Wenders’ respect for genre movies, among a whole bunch of directors acting here are two of the masters of film noir, Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller).

Of course, it’s also still a mid-1970s European art-house film – for instance, there’s a riff about Ripley’s doomed struggle to pin down his own identity, aided by some hi-tech gadgets (a dictaphone and a Polaroid camera). And it’s beautifully shot by regular Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, capturing the mix of the crumbling past and shiny infrastructure in the West Germany and France of the time. In terms of heightened lighting and rich colour, it looks ahead to 1980s, and quite unlike the murky conspiracy thrillers that Hollywood had been making in the first half of the decade.

That leaves the Dennis Hopper question. There are lots of people in Hollywood who have terrible delusions that they are any use at something other than looking good on film, but Hopper actually was a better photographer than an actor. On screen, he was often be a tornado of tics and mannerisms. Sometimes that was horrible, but sometimes it fits. He’s OK here (and clearly having a lot of fun). As I said earlier, I suspect he’s nothing like Highsmith’s Ripley.

This is a film with a lot of stuff going on at several different levels, plenty of smart details to grab on to, much to enjoy while you’re watching and also much to think about afterwards. For a Wenders sceptic like me, this is abundant proof that he was good before he went bad.


The Mark Of Zorro

Director Rouben Mamoulian Stars Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell USA 1940 Language English (with a tiny bit of Spanish) 1hr 34mins Black & white

The definitive sound-era Zorro

Let’s talk about two rich young men who don masks and capes to do what they consider good. One is the muscle-bound, scowling vigilante of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. The other is the smiling, witty, Californian aristocrat of Rouben Mamoulian’s delightful1940 swashbuckler. Some people have argued that Nolan brought a new maturity to the masked-avenger movie. I’d suggest the exact opposite: Nolan’s films are perfectly pitched at moody 16 and 17-year-olds, the kind who think they are superior to their parents because they have realised just how dark and cruel the world is, the kind of teen bores who have made humourless doom mongers like Pink Floyd and Radiohead perpetual residents in the album charts.

I’m not sure that The Mark Of Zorro has anything significant to say about politics or psychology, but then neither does The Dark Knight Rises. What it has instead are those now terribly neglected cinematic elements, charm and lightness of touch that are better appreciated as you stop taking yourself so damn seriously. David Thomson says Mamoulian ‘managed to convey the impression of Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone dancing to an unheard score.’ He’s not wrong.

This is your core Zorro tale, loosely based on the original 1919 story, The Curse Of Capistrano. Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power, whose real name was… Tyrone Power! How cool is that?) returns to early-19th century Los Angeles from military academy in Madrid to find that his father has been booted out as the alcalde (mayor, although the word is never translated) and replaced the brutal and corrupt Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), in an uneasy partnership with the scheming Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Rathbone).

Discovering that Don Alejandro Vega and his landowner chums are doing nothing effective to stop Quintero and Esteban taxing the peasants into penury, Diego – who the audience knows is a nifty swordsman and rider – starts exaggerating the Madrid dandy side of his personality (‘I love the shimmer of satin and silk, the delicate matching of one shade against another’). Meanwhile, a masked bandit signing himself Zorro launches his career with a series of daring, attention-grabbing attacks on Quintero and his regime. The film holds off for a while admitting the connection between these two things.

So how does Mamoulian go about telling the story? For one thing, he keeps it simple. There are very few significant characters in this film – Zorro has no sidekick, for instance, nor even a named horse. We don’t see Diego deciding to become Zorro, nor learn why he chose the disguise or the identity. Even the scene in which Diego dances with Quintero’s hot niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) and she realises that under the guise of perfume-sniffing fop lies the heart of real man, happens at a small dinner party rather than a big ball. And there’s no complex conspiracy, either – the bad guys are simply ruthless and greedy.

Zorro, of course, is both a fighter and a lover, and Mamoulian gets the balance right – just when you think it’s been a bit too long since we had a clash of swords, he wraps the film up with two terrific set pieces. He’s aided by a flawless cast – Power was absolutely in his element here, at home with all aspects of Don Diego’s character, including the fact that he’s a little too cocky, a little out of his depth and desperate to share the truth of his hidden identity. Basil Rathbone is terrific as cruel, insecure Esteban, and Eugene Pallette – great in classic screwball comedies such as My Man Godfrey and The Lady Eve – is excellent as Fray Felipe, the portly radical cleric.

It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s got great fencing scenes (and admittedly pretty iffy politics…) It’s a joy.

Click here for a splendid 1940 review from The New York Times


Prince Avalanche

Director David Gordon Green Stars Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch USA 2013 Language English 1hr 34mins Colour

Hear the one about the two guys painting a road?

This is a story about three films.

1. The first one I saw at the Metro, or maybe it was called The Other Cinema by then, anyway it was on Rupert Street, just off Piccadilly Circus. Of London’s many lost cinemas, it was one of the least memorable architecturally, just a couple of screens in a basement. But they showed terrific films there – it was good for movies that eased you down to their pace, drew you in. So it was just the place to watch All The Real Girls, one of those classic American indie movies where not a whole lot seems to happen, but that’s fine. It’s a lovely portrait of one of those rusty forgotten corners of America – there’s dirt-track racing in this film – shot with a brilliant Malickian eye.

2. The second I watched in my flat. Your Highness was maybe the last film I rented from the now defunct Blockbuster in Crystal Palace*. A stoner comedy about a questing mediaeval prince (see, hilarious title!), it’s one of the worst films ever made. And I say that as someone who has a high tolerance, or maybe that’s a weakness, for stoner comedies.

I think movies can be pretty much any amount stupid, puerile, generally numbskulled as long as they are funny. Your Highness is not funny. Not for a second. There’s a huge, aching chasm in it where the humour should be. It’s a grimly compelling spectacle to watch: can they keep this up? Will they break the spell with a joke that works by accident? But no. For a bunch of rank amateurs, it would be interesting that they made something quite so poor. From the talent involved, it’s astounding.

So as you either know or have guessed, those two films – despite being completely difference in quality, tone, competence etc, share something – some people, in fact – in common. They are both directed by David Gordon Green, and have Zooey Deschanel** and Danny McBride in the cast. It’s not unusual for a director to make two films that are so apart in feel, but it is uncommon for both of them to be, in some ways, personal projects. In a recent interview with Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian, Green discussed how his art-house and mainstream comedy tastes were nurtured at the same time, and are equally crucial to his approach to the film-making.

3. So the third film is Prince Avalanche, which I saw the Odeon Panton Street, the unlovely cinema just off Leicester Square that serves as that chain’s indie and rep dumping ground. So the idea is that Prince Avalanche is the synthesis to the thesis of Green’s early sensitive movies (All The Real Girls, George Washington) and their antithesis, his hanging-out-with-Judd-Apatow era (Your Highness, Pineapple Express).

Apparently adapted from an Icelandic movie that Green hadn’t even seen when he decided to use it as the basis for his film, Prince Avalanche is set in a burnt-down Texas forest in the late ‘80s. Alvin (Apatow regular Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are painting lines in the middle of the road and banging in posts by the road. Monday to Friday, it’s mostly just the two of them out there. At the weekend, Lance goes into town looking for girls (which we only hear about and never see). Alvin, who is going out with Lance’s sister, doesn’t. I think it is fair to say that Alvin is depressed. Although he hides it a bit better, I think Lance is, too. The pair of them squabble a lot. That’s normal: they are stuck out there, they are sharing a two-man tent, and Alvin feels he is a man of standards and regards Lance as immature. Alvin wants to listen to German lessons on their boombox, Lance wants to play metal. And that’s mostly it.

The setting is beautiful and bleak, and there’s a lot of melancholy to the film. There are a couple of characters who might or might not be ghosts. But there are also comedy riffs that could have come from a much more mainstream film. Hirsch plays Lance a bit like a numbed Jack Black. And there is an extended sequence of substance-addled mayhem, although the drug of availability here is moonshine rather than pot.

The film fits nicely into an enjoyable micro-tradition of two bickering guys out in the wilderness that takes in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and which I guess you could call American Godot.

Does Prince Avalanche work? I think so: it’s not great but it is watchable and sometimes funny and definitely sad, uncomfortable sometimes. Rudd is easily capable of embodying Alvin’s mixture of pride and unhappiness while conveying that he’s probably a good guy somewhere in there. There’s not a lot going on with the plot, but the characters make that story enough. And, dear god, it’s almighty step up from Your Highness. 

*The first was an Andy Warhol film, I think probably Heat.

**In that Guardian piece, Ryan Gilbey describes All The Real Girls as dating from ‘that bygone age before its star, Zooey Deschanel, was a medically recognised allergen’. 



Why Don’t You Play In Hell? 

Director Sion Sono Stars Jun Kunimura, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaido Japan 2013 Language Japanese (English subtitles) 1hr 59mins Colour

Entertainly unhinged, blood-soaked yakuza comedy

So there’s a young girl starring in a toothpaste ad with a song so catchy nobody will ever forget it, a bunch of nerdy kids who make 8mm films and call themselves the Fuck Bombers (in English) and two yakuza gangs engaged in a never-ending feud. Assorted early encounters between different combinations of these characters set us up for an eventual epic, blood-drenched showdown (I don’t think that’s a spoiler in this kind of film) 10 years on.

I’ve seen various attempts to pin down what kind of film this is, but the most important thing to know is that it’s a comedy. A fairly broad comedy, in some ways. An enjoyably daft and occasionally inventive comedy. And, admittedly, a comedy with one grisly act of romantic revenge, a hefty body count and limbs getting hacked off (although in a strictly non-realist way).

The Fuck Bombers, whose leader Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) wants to make one great movie and then die before he gets a chance to become rubbish, could be seen as heirs to the kids in John Waters’ Cecil B Demented.

Then there’s a yakuza gang who make the stylishly retro (if impractical) decision to reinvent themselves as a samurai clan, complete with kimonos and a lovely wood and rice-paper-screen base. There are ruthless cops, a hapless bystander fated to get involved and a pair of blokes who put up signs who provide a low-key Greek chorus.

I think some credit is due to Fumi Nikaido, who plays Mitsuko in the second part of the film. The boss’s stroppy, spoilt daughter is a well-worn trope in gangster films, but she breathes life into a role that objectively is pretty dubious (hot-pant wearing samurai-sword-wielding chick with whom various characters have been obsessed since she was a child… Hmm…)

It’s funny, it’s bloody, and – like a number of films I saw at this year’s London Film Festival – it’s a movie in love with movies.



Directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza Stars Saleh Bakri, Sara Serraiocco Italy/France 2013 Language Italian 1hr 44mins Colour

Taciturn tale of an unplanned kidnapping in Sicily

There is a better film struggling to get out of this one. It’s suggested by an intriguing subplot about the obsequious but resentful couple (Luigi Lo Cascio and Giuditta Perriera) whose lodger is in the Mafia. They want to please, not for his sake but his boss’s, but he keeps doing things that annoy and just confuse them. And he knows they are both his hosts and his warders, ready to blow the whistle if it looks like he is about to step out of line. I think you could craft something tense and darkly funny out of that.

The main plot of this film has a more well-worn premise. Because that lodger (Saleh Bakri) has indeed stepped out of line by sparing the blind younger sister of the man who ordered a hit on his boss. Now he’s trying to keep her hidden and alive, without showing any signs of having a plan of how to do this.

Not that it would be easy to know what he’s thinking, because there is precious little dialogue from anyone, and the central character only has a handful of lines (it wasn’t until the penultimate scene that I realised the actor isn’t a native Italian speaker). This is a moody film, portentous and sometimes quite silly in the solemnity with which it conducts its hackneyed storytelling, and with characters who seem to change personality abruptly for no reason.

It tries out a number of genres - Mafia film, Western, Stockholm-syndrome drama - before discarding them and settling for the least convincing option.

There is a clash of acting styles early on with Sara Serraiocco, the first-time actress who plays Rita, the blind girl, overacting wildly while Bakri makes Clint Eastwood look hyperactive by comparison. She gets better as it goes on, but that can’t save a film that just doesn’t hang together, and has some truly risible moments (many connected with a godawful power ballad we’re subjected to repeatedly).


Drinking Buddies

Director Joe Swanberg Stars Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston USA 2013 Language English 1hr 30mins Colour

Indie beer, hipsters, complicated romantic lives

This might be the most 2013 film that will be made. It’s set in a craft brewery. There’s a lot of facial hair*. People listening to acousticky stuff on vinyl. Americans drinking stout without feeling compelled to mention the Easter Rising. People who sell stuff at farmers’ markets. All that**.

The title characters are Kate (Olivia Wilde), who does sales, marketing and events at the Revolution Brewery, and Luke (Jake Johnson), who actually makes beer. They have lunch together every day, and hit the bar after work with the other work dudes (and other than Kate, they are dudes). They have private jokes. They’re like soulmates, man.

He’s in a long-term relationship with a special needs teacher (Anna Kendrick), she’s more recently with an older record producer (Ron Livingston). Both the other halves are (hiss) wine drinkers by preference. And the four of them go for a weekend in a cabin by a lake…

So, yes, this is an attempt to look at the When Harry Met Sally question of whether men and women can be friends, close friends. But let’s be clear, this isn’t a Jennifer Aniston movie, nor, despite the title, a sub-Judd Apatow one, nor is it much like the sitcoms in which assorted cast members do/have earned their keep***. For a while, despite all the baseball caps, it feels rather French, and not the good kind of French. Fortunately, it gets past that. It’s all unscripted – as have been the previous films made by Joe Swanberg, who came up as part of the mumblecore movement but seems to be edging closer to the mainstream – but it never has that self-conscious improvy vibe.

One of the key moments comes when Luke volunteers to help Kate move. You should never volunteer to help someone move. You’ll work like a bastard, probably damage yourself, and get no thanks because the person moving is traumatised by what they are doing. It’s a well-chosen, true-to-life moment.

A character-driven film like this one can stand or fall on the ending every bit as much as an action movie. I bought the ending. I liked the ending. It made me like the rest of the film more. It’s good, it’s smart, it’s grown-up(ish). But it did make me think maybe I needed to lose the beard.

*That poster lies: Johnson has a big beard – almost the full Saul – all the way through the movie. 

**Grrr, farmers’ markets. Jay Rayner is on the right lines, but he doesn’t go far enough.

***You might feel this is a bit of a busman’s holiday for Jake Johnson from playing a bartender trying to work out if he is in love with his flatmate in New Girl.



Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake USA/France 2013 Language English 1hr 45mins Colour

Splendid character study set in early 1960s bohemia from the Coen brothers

A few days in the life of folksinger Llewyn Davis in New York City, 1961. A few days that should be enough to extinguish any romanticism about the bohemian life, about the freedom from commitments of the chronic couch surfer, the refusal to be tied down being in practice the wearying obligation every other night to find some friend who you haven’t hit up for a favour recently.

And Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a bad guest, a terrible guest. Maybe because he is so tired, as he says, or maybe because he is, as his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) says, a dick and an asshole, Llewyn consistently pisses on the laws of hospitality. Pretty much everything wrong you could do to people who have taken you in, fed you, given you endless never-to-be-repaid loans, he does. And yet they still try, still they forgive.

Why? Because Llewyn has his charms, because he is (somewhere underneath it all) obviously hurting, and not least, because he’s a good singer. That’s one of the big choices that the Coens have made here – Llewyn’s professional struggles are not because he’s deluded about his talent. As with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens are serious about the music – you don’t get bits of songs to illustrate the scene, you get them the whole way through. And the songs, the serious folk songs (all stuff that would have been around at the time) and a novelty possible hit one of them comes up with (written for the film), are all excellent.

Llewyn is heading for trouble in other ways, whether you are mystically inclined – almost every opportunity to generate good karma is spurned – or not – every time he has to make a small decision that might affect his future in a bigger way, he seems to get it wrong.

If that seems an awful of talking about one character, well, that’s the way the film works. I don’t think we ever leave Llewyn’s side – if he’s not in shot, he’s still in the room (or, for a long stretch of the film, in the car). And as such, the film rests substantially on the shoulders of previously none-too-famous Oscar Isaac*, and he’s just terrific, making sure that Llewyn is compellingly screwed-up rather than unbearable. The rest of the cast do a fine job, too – Mulligan, Justin Timberlake (oddly sounding a bit like Joe Pernice when singing folk songs) as Jim, her partner on and off stage, and a whole bunch of superb Coens minor characters (I loved the secretary at Llewyn’s record company, as played by  Sylvia Kauders). Not to mention the cat.

As films made by Joel and Ethan Coen go, Inside Llewyn Davis is fairly straight. It’s very funny in places, some (OK, most) of the characters are indeed fairly eccentric, but compared to say, O Brother or Burn After Reading, this is restrained stuff. That’s not a value judgement – I know there are people who hate what they regard as the excesses, the overstylisation of some of the Coens’ movies, but I’m not one of them. That said, the only weakness of this film is too much of one of their staples, the menacing John Goodman bit. Here it goes on far too long, for no obvious reason other than it’s John Goodman and they love him.

That aside, Inside Llewyn Davis is pretty much immaculate – perfectly cast, perfectly timed, full of great lines, brilliantly shot (by Bruno Delbonnel) to make New York in 1961 look exactly how you’d imagine it from old record sleeves, and beautifully sung. I think it’s the best film the Coens have made since, oh, at least The Man Who Wasn’t There**, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

*As far as I can gather, he’s basically best known for not being David Krumholtz.

**There’s the Oscar voters’ view that puts Fargo and No Country For Old Men far above the rest of the Coens’ work. I like both those films, but neither would be in my favourite five of their movies.

I saw Inside Llewyn Davis at the 2013 London Film Festival