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Davis takes you away

Coen brothers’ latest film is the one that will hang around

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 24, 2014 at 3:34 a.m.


ILD_05466_ct: Oscar Isaac and F. Murray Abraham (left to right) in Joel and Ethan Coenís INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

My favorite movie of last year is Inside Llewyn Davis.

I am wild about this movie; it involved me on a number of levels. Even a couple of months after having seen it I am still thinking about it and teasing new meanings from its scenes.

But the best thing about the movie was that I lost myself in it almost instantly.

While watching it I gave no thought whatsoever to the world beyond that bounded by the screen. This is what most people say they go to the movies for, this feeling of transport and escape, but I experience it so rarely I sometimes doubt it is possible for a movie-wise adult to obtain.

Mostly we enjoy movies without forgetting what they are - a lot of the pleasure we take from them derives from seeing actors we recognize tweaking their style or recognizing how a director acknowledges his influences. We appreciate the way a story pivots on itself, we admire how an era is re-created, we seize on hundreds of little details. But we - or at least I - hardly ever forget that I am in a theater, watching a movie of determinate length. Often I find myself mentally writing a review of a film as it is playing - I don’t typically take notes during films but my mind is constantly ginning observations. I think about the movie as it unspools, I engage with it on a more intellectual level than is probably ideal.

But Inside Llewyn Davis hooked me. It sucked me in and when I emerged a couple of hours later, I was a little stunned.

I wasn’t sure what I’d write about it - I didn’t care what I’d write about it. I was just a little sad to quit the world the Coen brothers had fashioned for my own.

I expected, based on my experience and the nature of the film that I’d just seen, that most people who watched Inside Llewyn Davis probably wouldn’t feel the same way about the film that I did. After all, I know a bit about the pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene, I like acoustic guitars and I’m familiar with roots music impresario T Bone Burnett’s worldview, which permeates this movie. (I’m not sure if he’s actually influenced the Coens or whether they sought him out as a collaborator because they were sympatico with his attitude. Either way, it’s a great partnership.)

There are some very specific elements in Inside Llewyn Davis that speak to me - I understand why I like the movie. Your mileage may vary.

In fact I’m a little surprised so many people seem to genuinely love the movie - I know people who have watched it multiple times. A few haven’t liked it - one critic I know is positively vitriolic about it - but the general reception is better than I thought it would be. I thought some people would perceive Llewyn Davis as an off-putting character, and others simply wouldn’t get it. (And at least one professionally authored review didn’t - the guy located Llewyn’s animus toward facile yet more successful folk singers in the fact that Llewyn’s songs are superior to their ditties when the whole point of the movie is that Llewyn isn’t a songwriter but a folk singer, one who adheres tothe superstition that the only authentic expression possible is through the performance of timeless songs. Llewyn even defines a folk song as something that “was never newand never gets old.” Llewyn is too pure an artist to write material, and that’s one reason he’s doomed.)

So what’s my reaction to the Academy Awards “snub” of Inside Llewyn Davis? Meh.

I am surprised. But hardly shocked, and don’t really feel bad for the Coens. I think Inside Llewyn Davis is going to be a movie that hangs around a long time. Everyone will be rewarded for making it. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes which, while not a perfect indicator of quality, is more reliable than a Best Picture Oscar.

I don’t hate the Oscars - I just don’t think they have anything much to do with my job. I’m not good at predicting nominees or winners, and I don’t care that much. I’ll play along because I’m a good sport and it’s fun but you will never convince me that Argo (which I really liked) is a better picture than Amour.

I don’t have a real problem with any of the nine Best Picture nominees - American Hustle, Gravity, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips are all good, 12 Years a Slave is a cut or two above them. The Wolf of Wall Street is problematic, not because Martin Scorsese makes bad behavior look like fun (by the way, bad behavior is often fun) but because it feels unfinished and rushed. Nebraska and Her are my two favorites among the nominees and - while I haven’t consulted my bookie - are probably the least likely to win.

I’m surprised Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t get a nomination and that the Coens weren’t nominated for Best Director, and most of all that Oscar Isaac didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for playing Llewyn, but I understand why these things work this way. Not everyone likes the same thing and even if they did the politics of Oscar voting are labyrinthine. People make a game out of parsing the nominations. I just like to watch the show and forget everything I’ve just seen.

Everyone is saying that 2013 was a really good movie year. And it was, in a way; it was like a very deep NBA draft. Lots of solid, well-made enjoyable movies, but I don’t perceive a LeBron James out there. Gravity and American Hustle seem poised to slug it out. I don’t know that either one is terrifically deep or nourishing, but they were great to watch once. Which is all they need to be.

Inside Llewyn Davis, like its title character, is perhaps a little too true and uncompromising for mass appeal. It’s the little movie that couldn’t quite. Maybe it says something about me that it’s the one I love the most.

I don’t mean to say I told you so, but did you notice last week that Paramount announced it would no longer release movies on 35 millimeter film? It seems likely that by the end of the year, no major studios will be releasing movies on film. Everything will be digital.

The upshot of this is that any theater that wants to stay in the game will have to convert to digital. Or go out of business. And that’s expensive - $50,000 to $70,000 per screen. What small-town theaters are left may be hardpressed to ante up.

Little Rock’s Market Street Cinema recently converted one of its five theaters to digital, allowing it to show movies like Dallas Buyers Club alongside its usual diet of arthouse releases, some of which, for the time being at least, will continue to be released in 35 mm. (Market Street can also show Blu-ray discs in all its theaters.)

Seven or eight years ago I wrote that this day was coming and that one of the big reasons for the promotion of 3-D tent-pole movies was to hasten theaters’ adoption of digital projection systems. (If you wanted to show Ice Age in 3-D, you had to have digital equipment.)

In the long run, I think this is probably a good thing. Digital projection is usually better. But I can’t help but lament the demise of the skilled projectionist and mourn those theaters that will be killed off in the short term.

But, as Llewyn Davis found out, the times they are a’changin’.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/24/2014

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