Friday, January 31, 2014

The 2013 Oscar Shorts: Great things in small packages

The 2013 Oscar Shorts (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: G, PG and R, depending on the film

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.14

Much as I always enjoy the annual Oscar short subjects, I’ve noticed over time that many of the live-action nominees tend to be ... well ... quite depressing.

So when this year’s entry from Denmark, Helium, opened on a little boy in a hospital bed, I couldn’t blame my Constant Companion for shooting me a decidedly reproachful glance.

At first blush, animation entry Get a Horse! looks and sounds like a late 1920s-era
Mickey Mouse cartoon; the historical "impersonation" is remarkably authentic. But
things take a wonderfully unexpected turn about a minute in, when Mickey
"breaks the fourth wall" quite spectacularly.
In fairness, director Anders Walter’s 23-minute fable is equal parts charming and poignant, despite building to a sad-yet-triumphant conclusion that you’ll anticipate 30 seconds in. And you’ll be right ... but you won’t be prepared for the gut-punch that comes with the quick final scene.

It’s an imaginative film, with Walter drawing expressive performances from young Pelle Falk Krusbaek, as the dying little boy in question; and Casper Crump, as the eccentric hospital janitor who concocts a progressively wild tale about the much more interesting, kid-oriented alternative to heaven that awaits true believers.

Be prepared, though: Walter’s film packs quite an emotional punch.

That’s also true of Spanish director Esteban Crespo’s That Wasn’t Me, which is likely to leave an intense mental scar long after the lights come up. Helium, for all its gentle power, is a work of fiction; Crespo’s film is ripped from today’s grim headlines regarding the cruel indoctrination and subsequent exploitation of child soldiers.

Spanish aid worker Paula (Alejandra Lorente) has naively followed her boyfriend Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) into an unspecified African country, hoping to Make A Difference. Based on their larkish demeanor, things have gone well thus far; that changes abruptly at a checkpoint, when a thuggish rebel army general (Babou Cham) decides to use these interlopers as human targets, in order to “blood” his young conscripts.

One of the latter is Kaney (Juan Tojaka), an adolescent with a fondness for soccer.

What follows is grim, graphic, tautly edited and heart-stopping; Crespo doesn’t let up for a moment, and — for a time — we’ve no idea where this 24-minute film is going. The complexity of the filmmaker’s vision becomes clear once we move toward the climactic third act, and the realization that Crespo wants us to understand that these young boys, no matter how bestial, are just as brutalized as the victims they’ve been brainwashed into fighting. Only as the film ends do we understand and appreciate its title.

It’s a thoughtful, harrowing drama: quite possibly the winner in this category.

Not that the competition isn’t stiff. French director Xavier Legrand also does excellent work with Just Before Losing Everything, a drama whose mere title makes us fear the worst (particularly given the reputation of these live-action shorts!). The opening sequence is deceptively bucolic, with young Julien (Miljan Chatelain) heading off for an average school day.

Except that he doesn’t.

Labor Day: Belabored

Labor Day (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Good artists love to stretch, and should be encouraged to do so; nothing is worse than getting stuck in a rut.

With Frank (Josh Brolin, right) keeping a wary eye on her, Adele (Kate Winslet) quietly
pays for her purchases, afraid that any effort to raise a fuss about this menacing
stranger might endanger her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Still, it’s puzzling that Jason Reitman — a director/scripter best known for deliciously snarky dialogue and the piquant social commentary of Juno and Up in the Air — would settle for the soggy melodrama of Labor Day. At best, Joyce Maynard’s source novel is one step up from a Nicholas Sparks weeper, and Reitman’s approach slides right into the sloppy sentimentality of a big-screen Harlequin romance, with an endless parade of stricken expressions and long-suffering sighs.

Honestly, this film has so many pregnant pauses, they should have delivered twins or triplets. Strip out the long wordless takes on young Gattlin Griffith alone, and Labor Day would be half an hour shorter.

Okay, that’s unduly harsh and somewhat unfair. When the anguished gazes come from Kate Winslet, they contain undeniable dramatic heft; her every glance and gesture convey a wealth of emotional data. To his credit, co-star Josh Brolin also delivers a persuasive performance, and Griffith — his protracted silences notwithstanding — capably holds up his end of the equation.

Somehow, though, the dramatic whole is less than the sum of these thespic parts. I simply couldn’t get beyond the story’s contrivance and constricted timeline: shortcomings that may have been less conspicuous during the leisurely reading of a 288-page novel, but which confront us aggressively during a two-hour movie.

The story is a memoir shared via adult hindsight by Tobey Maguire, whose narrative voice always is a treat; he delivers just the right blend of wistful nostalgia and reflective insight. He tells us of a most unusual event that took place when he was 13, amidst a particularly sweltering New England summer weekend in 1987.

Young Henry (Griffith) is the sole companion to his mother, Adele (Winslet), who has become reclusive following the quiet tragedy that led up to an unhappy divorce. Henry is her lifeline; to the degree allowed by his youth, he conducts modest financial transactions and handles small shopping chores. But he’s still a boy; larger responsibilities elude him, and their house is sliding slowly into disrepair.

Neighbors, although observant and well-intentioned, respect Adele’s desire for isolation.

That Awkward Moment: That sinking feeling

That Awkward Moment (2014) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for relentless profanity and sexual candor, and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

If writer/director Tom Gormican’s loathsome little flick reflects Generation Y dating practices to even the slightest degree, I sure feel sorry for Millennial women.

Jason (Zac Efron) blows his first encounter with Ellie (Imogen Poots) by incorrectly
assuming that she's a hooker (merely one of this inept film's many ham-fisted plot
complications). Although she quite reasonably takes offense at this weird
accusation, she nonetheless agrees to a second date. Yeah, right...
The misleading publicity push notwithstanding, Gormican’s film isn’t the slightest bit funny; it’s merely vulgar and morally repugnant. And that Gormican thinks it should be funny is even worse.

That Awkward Moment is precisely the sort of cinematic bomb one expects to be dropped during the January doldrums.

Gormican has no previous credits, save as one of the countless co-producers on last year’s Movie 43, which sank without a trace. I can’t imagine how he secured financing for this misogynistic twaddle, nor do I wish to meet the studio producer(s) who somehow saw merit in his script.

On one level, this clumsy mess is merely another entry in the arrested-adolescent-males-behaving-badly sub-genre typified by high-profile comedies such as the Hangover series, last summer’s This Is the End and any Will Ferrell project. But Gormican’s film isn’t even good enough to be that bad; his dialogue is strictly from hunger, and he has a terrible sense of pacing and narrative flow.

One must be wary of any movie that opens as its main character questions his current “predicament” via a profanity-laced voiceover; it’s a sure sign of very bad things to come ... and Gormican quickly lives down to worst expectations.

That Awkward Moment is particularly abhorrent, however, because unlike the other comedies cited above — which have nothing beyond crude slapstick nonsense on their agendas — Gormican apparently wishes to extract a gentler romantic comedy, complete with hearts-and-flowers conclusion, from a storyline that can’t begin to support such an outcome.

Rewarding this narrative’s three losers for their reprehensible behavior isn’t merely artistically suspect; it’s insulting to every woman of any age who foolishly wanders into this flick.

Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County — A blistering summer

August: Osage County (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for frequent profanity and earthy dialogue, and occasional drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.24.14

Some children dream, worshipfully, of growing up to become just like their parents.

Other children have nightmares about that same possibility.

As Violet (Meryl Streep, left) grows increasingly annoyed by a clumsy before-meal
prayer that stumbles its way from awkward to tedious, daughters Ivy (Julianne
Nicholson, center) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) close their eyes and wait for the
inevitable explosion.
August: Osage County, adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, charts the highs (very few) and lows (too many to tabulate) of the extended Weston family, brought by unexpected tragedy to the Northern Oklahoma town that several of them fled, years ago, in self-defense.

Although Oklahoma isn’t technically a southern state — nor is it one of the plains states, despite an early comment by one of these characters — the tone here is very much in the dysfunctional Southern gothic tradition of Tennessee Williams, Beth Henley and numerous other playwrights who regard this classic American setting as less a geographical place, and more a regional attitude.

Southern families argue in a style all their own, tempers often as high as the mercury-shattering thermometers. And they don’t merely bicker; they dig at each other with rapacious delight, unerringly targeting each victim’s soft underbelly. Characters in such settings turn sniping into an art form, perhaps even an Olympic sport.

It’s impossible to imagine Northern California families quarrelling in such a fashion, no matter how strained the relations. The cadence, rhythm and circumstances are quintessentially rooted south of the Mason-Dixon line. Or thereabouts.

Be advised, then: Despite its mesmerizing script and bravura performances, August: Osage County is an endurance test in the manner of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It’s not easy to watch people eviscerate each other for two hours, no matter how crisp the dialogue, or how striking the acting.

Most of the slicing and dicing emanates from family matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), an embittered, waspish harridan embracing old age with no grace whatsoever. Demonstrating that God does indeed possess a mordant sense of humor, Violet has just been diagnosed with mouth cancer, which has exacerbated her tendency to be a prescription junkie.

But the cancer hasn’t muted Violet’s bark, nor has it diminished her nicotine habit. Nothing is more ghastly — or darkly amusing, in a gallows humor sort of way — than watching Streep gently poke a cigarette into the less painful left corner of her mouth, and then fire it up so she can puff away.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — Engaging spy hijinks

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

This is the most fun I’ve had with a spy thriller since 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy ... and possibly since 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine, left) doesn't miss much, so he's not surprised when Thomas
Harper (Kevin Costner), having monitored the younger man's hospital convalescence,
formally introduces himself and makes a tantalizing offer: Would Ryan like to join the
CIA? Needless to say, there'd be no movie if Ryan declined...
Actually, the Condor comparison may be more apt, since this re-boot of Tom Clancy’s intrepid CIA analyst — played in previous films by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck — places a greater emphasis on Ryan’s analytical skills, while making him a reluctant secret agent. The resulting action dynamic evokes fond memories of Robert Redford’s similarly desperate efforts, in Condor, to make the most of a set of circumstances far outside his comfort zone.

Not that star Chris Pine’s fresh take on Jack Ryan is wholly inexperienced when it comes to field work, as was the case with Redford’s character. As seems obligatory these days, with “rookie” covert operatives, this re-imagined Ryan is a former Marine with plenty of hoo-rah grit and hand-to-hand combat skills, in addition to his university book-learnin’.

Indeed, we’re introduced to a college-age Ryan attending classes at the London School of Economics, on the fateful day when terrorists take out New York’s Twin Towers. Galvanized into serving his country, Ryan becomes a Marine and nearly loses his life. Convalescence and subsequent physical therapy bring two people into his orbit: flirty, kind-hearted med student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), and stoic man of mystery Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner).

The former, we can be sure, will become this story’s obligatory love interest; the latter, armed with Costner’s devilish smile, is the CIA recruiter who brings Ryan into the fold. But not, Harper insists, until the younger man returns to school and obtains his degree. The CIA wants Ryan to be Wall Street-savvy, the better to ferret out nasty back-room dealings that might endanger the U.S. economy.

Flash-forward to the present day, with Ryan comfortably ensconced at a high-profile Wall Street firm where nobody knows of his actual career. “Nobody” includes Cathy, now a main squeeze of many years’ standing, who has become a pediatric eye surgeon. Thus far, Cathy hasn’t had any reason to wonder about her lover’s candor — Ryan has taken the CIA secrecy pledge very seriously — but, naturally, that’s about to change.

I’m not sure that plot contrivance works in this day and age; it seems highly unlikely that Ryan could have concealed his shadowy activities for so long. People who live together generally know each other’s movements better than that, and the resulting “trouble” caused by this secret seems a mite silly ... even when Pine does his best to sell the notion with his unabashed charm and Boy Scout enthusiasm.

But it’s not a major problem, and the subterfuge does prompt several cute exchanges between Pine and Knightley, both of whom deliver plenty of captivating star wattage.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Invisible Woman: What the Dickens?

The Invisible Woman (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, and quite ludicrously, for mild sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.17.14

Consider the irony: Actor/director Ralph Fiennes’ new film about Charles Dickens, a storytelling craftsman, is undone by a maddeningly clumsy script.

During a late-night social gathering, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) entertains the
guests by hypnotizing Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas, far left), much to the
delight of her daughers, from left, Nelly (Felicity Jones) and Maria (Perdita Weeks).
Nelly, however, is far more captivated by Dickens himself, than by his little party trick.
However authentic the 19th century setting, however lavish the costumes, however fascinating that so many of the English estates and countryside settings seem not to have changed, it remains impossible to become involved with this narrative. Abi Morgan’s screenplay is slow, difficult to follow, and needlessly enigmatic. Essential details are glossed over or rendered so subtly as to be overlooked.

Morgan already has demonstrated an unconventional approach to biographical material; her screenplay for The Iron Lady was less about Margaret Thatcher, and more about the nature of grief, and the cruelty of old age. Viewers wanting to learn something about the career that shaped and defined Thatcher walked away disappointed; folks are likely to do the same after enduring Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman.

The title refers to Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, who in 1857, at the age of 18, came to the attention of Dickens during a Manchester performance of The Frozen Deep, a play that he had co-written with his good friend Wilkie Collins. Nelly and her two older sisters, Maria and Fanny, were at that time following in the acting footsteps of their mother, Frances Ternan, who had achieved modest fame on the London stage.

Dickens, then 45, was married and the father of nine children. He nonetheless fell in love with Nelly, an arrangement that her mother likely “tolerated” both because of the celebrated author’s stature, and because her youngest daughter had scant acting talent. Besides which, Victorian-era actresses generally were regarded as only one short step above prostitutes ... so it could be argued that Nelly didn’t have much of a reputation to protect.

But Dickens did. Despite the very public manner in which he disavowed his wife and mother of their many children — publishing a letter in his own magazine, Household Words, which blamed her for their estrangement — he nonetheless managed to keep his relationship with Nelly below public (and press) radar.

Dickens and Nelly remained lovers and companions until the author’s death in 1870, at which point — and here’s the fascinating part — the 31-year-old Nelly, still looking quite youthful, “re-invented” herself as a much younger woman. While staying with her sister Maria in Oxford, she caught the eye of an undergraduate named George Wharton. They eventually married — he was 24, she a clandestine 36 — and settled in Margate, where they had two children and ran a boys’ school.

When anybody asked about her unusually extensive library of Dickens’ works, she’d claim that the author had been a family friend when she was a little girl.

(One assumes that Nelly eventually confessed at least part of the truth to her husband, when her advancing age became more obvious, and at a point when their relationship could have withstood the revelation.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lone Survivor: Heartbreak ridge

Lone Survivor (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for strong war violence and pervasive profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.10.14

Color me surprised: Peter Berg finally made another decent movie.

The actor-turned-writer/director scored an indisputable hit with 2004’s warm-hearted Friday Night Lights, a character-driven study of small-town Texas high school football; the film led to an equally well-received TV series that kept fans happy for three well-scripted seasons (with Berg supervising the entire run).

Having trekked to a vantage point where they can see their targeted enemy combatant,
the covert SEAL team — from left, Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Marcus (Mark Wahlberg),
Axe (Ben Foster) and Dietz (Emile Hirsch) — contemplate their next move. Sadly,
that decision is about to be taken out of their hands.
On the big screen, though, Berg’s résumé didn’t merely stall; it nose-dived into overwrought wretched excess. The Kingdom (2007) was marred by unpleasantly vicious racism; Hancock (2008) did little but embarrass star Will Smith; and the less said about 2012’s laughably atrocious Battleship, the better.

That’s a rather sad and pathetic downward spiral.

I therefore held out very little hope for Lone Survivor, upon learning that Berg was directing and scripting from Marcus Luttrell’s gripping 2007 memoir ... which just goes to prove, once again, the folly of rash assumptions. This film deserves place of pride alongside A Bridge Too Far, Gallipoli, Black Hawk Down and other war dramas that honor the grit, bravery, indomitable will and almost superhuman resilience of overwhelmed, ground-based soldiers betrayed by circumstances beyond their control.

Lone Survivor isn’t merely stirring; it’s nail-bitingly tense and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

The story details a SEAL operation code-named Operation Red Wings, which in June 2005 sent four men into a mountainous region of Afghanistan; they were tasked with locating and killing Ahmad Shah, a Taliban sympathizer who had orchestrated the ambush of 20 Marines the previous week.

To say that everything went wrong would be an understatement. Radio communications were spotty at best, absent entirely when the subsequent crisis erupted. Worse yet, American intel seriously underestimated the size of Shah’s resident militia. When the dust had settled, as this film’s title warns us, only one man had survived ... and the fatalities had expanded to include far more than the initial SEAL team.

Berg, long a gung-ho champion of American warrior spirit, unveils this film’s credits against actual footage of formidable SEAL training sessions; our immediate takeaway is that these men will endure anything, battling far beyond “normal” levels of pain and punishment, in the pursuit of successfully completing a mission and returning home with their comrades.

It’s an impressive montage, and it certainly sets the mood for what is to come.

We meet our protagonists immediately prior to their mission, during a typical “waiting” period at Camp Ouellette, at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield. They cheerfully compete with each other, send e-mails to loved ones back home, make plans for the future. The day’s most significant event involves the “induction” of newbie SEAL Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig, appropriately enthusiastic), a process that involves some mild hazing and considerable hoo-rah bonding.

her: Character flaws

her (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

Writer/director Spike Jonze’s new fantasy is an intriguing cautionary tale aimed squarely at the narcissistic, self-absorbed millennials who increasingly behave as if social media isn’t merely an acceptable substitute for personal contact, but in fact deserves to become the preferred method of interaction.

After confessing that he may be falling in love with his computer operating system,
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is surprised when his longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams)
doesn't react with disgust. Indeed, she seems quite okay with the concept...
In that respect, Jonze displays an uncanny instinct for depicting our deeply disturbing near-future, if such conduct continues unchecked along its current path.

Much as I admire the message, however, the delivery system leaves something to be desired. At 126 minutes, this film is self-indulgent to a fault, moving s-l-o-w-l-y to the point of ponderous tedium, en route to a resolution that we can see coming from miles away.

Were Rod Serling alive today, I’ve no doubt he could have turned this premise into a dynamite half-hour installment of his Twilight Zone TV series (assuming placement on HBO or some other pay-cable network, to preserve the essential adult themes). Jonze, taking a much more leisurely approach, drags us for an monotonous ride that had me checking my watch during the entire second hour.

Jonze burst onto the cinema scene with 1999’s Being John Malkovich — which brought him an Academy Award nomination for best director — and has built his subsequent big-screen career on eccentric and downright bizarre relationship dynamics. He most famously teamed with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for 2002’s Adaptation, the latter insisting on co-crediting that script with his “fictitious twin brother” Donald, both of whom were depicted in the film by Nicolas Cage.

Adaptation was an alternately hilarious and disturbing analysis of the creative process, and Jonze’s new film certainly follows that template. But instead of a fictitious twin, this story’s co-protagonist is the disembodied voice of a computer operating system that possesses intelligence, perception and a capacity for emotional growth.

In other words, the perfect example of artificial intelligence.

The setting is Los Angeles in a “slight future” that is a welcome utopian relief from the Blade Runner-esque hellholes envisioned in too many recent sci-fi films. The overall infrastructure in this vision of Southern California looks and feels familiar, aside for a greater emphasis on towering buildings, and the ambiance is warm, comfortable and embracing. People wear nice clothes, the weather seems ideal, food is plentiful and tasty, and there’s no trace of crime, neglect or poverty.

OK, so maybe it’s a bit soulless ... which is, of course, precisely the point.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Bittersweet lament

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG, for occasional crude language and mild profanity, and a bit of fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.14

James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” originally appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and subsequently went on to become one of the most frequently anthologized American short stories. It subsequently begat a charming 1947 Danny Kaye film, a 1960 stage adaptation — as part of the revue A Thurber Carnival — and a woefully underappreciated 1969-70 TV sitcom, My World and Welcome to It, that barely scraped along for a single season (and still hasn’t been released on home video, drat the luck!).

Walter (Ben Stiller), desperate to make an impression on Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), imagines
all sorts of adventurous meet-cute moments, as with this fantasy of appearing before her
as a suave and rugged Arctic explorer
Now, rather unexpectedly, Thurber’s whimsical day in the life of a mild-mannered nebbish has become a poignant lament on the demise of print journalism. From the wild ’n’ crazy Ben Stiller, no less. Who could have imagined?

Not I; that’s for certain.

Initially, though, Stiller’s film — he directed and co-scripted (with Steve Conrad), in addition to starring in the title role — lives down to my worst expectations. The opening half-hour slides clumsily into slapstick nonsense as we meet Walter, the “Negative Assets Manager” at Life Magazine. That droll job title actually refers to Walter’s selection and careful handling of the dynamic photographs that have characterized the publication.

He toils quietly in the Time Life Building’s sub-sub basement, helped only by a single assistant, Hernando (a disarmingly dry Adrian Martinez), while fantasizing about all the astonishingly brave and bold moments that have been captured on the images he has handled. Walter also imagines working up the courage to approach co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), invariably concocting a scenario that involves saving her life, or otherwise impressing her greatly.

When back on earth, he can barely muster a morning greeting ... despite the fact, as we can tell, that she’s clearly interested.

Although set in the modern day, Stiller and Conrad have re-invented Life’s timeline in order to suit their purpose: to follow Walter on what becomes the worst day of his life, as the magazine’s corporate owners announce the termination of its print edition. Just as life has passed Walter by, life now is about to pass Life by.

Even his job has been rendered superfluous, since the advent of digital photography has wholly transformed the art and craft of photojournalism. But not for one lone hold-out: the dynamic Sean O’Connell (a cameo by Sean Penn), an old-school camera jockey who’ll still roar toward the heart of an exploding volcano, snapping pictures while standing on the wings of a biplane.

But on the boring ground, the magazine’s conversion to dot-com oblivion is being overseen by the new Managing Director in Charge of The Transition: the consummately arrogant, presumptuously inconsiderate and relentlessly intimidating Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Sensing a victim who won’t fight back, the bullying Hendricks wastes no opportunity to belittle Walter ... who simply makes matters worse with his tendency to drift into occasional fantasy fugues.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: Sour notes

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang 

To borrow shamelessly from a mordant holiday song, the only thing you’ll find inside Llewyn Davis is a heart that’s full of unwashed socks, and a soul that’s full of gunk. His brain is full of spiders; he’s as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel.

He really is a heel.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, left) is undeniably talented, as he demonstrates when effortlessly
filling in for a session musician during the recording of a novelty tune in honor of
astronaut John Glenn. The song is penned by Llewyn's friend Jim (Justin
Timberlake, center), with a comic vocal assist from Al (Adam Driver)
None of which is the slightest bit amusing or entertaining, as was the case with the green-skinned Grinch. Llewyn Davis is simply a self-centered jerk: a struggling Greenwich Village folk singer attempting to make it in a business he neither understands nor admires, and who bitterly stomps on the feelings of anybody daft enough to extend a gesture of kindness.

We are, once again, spending nearly two hours in the presence of a thoroughly unlikable boor, and to no purpose. Llewyn doesn’t learn anything; neither does he mature or experience anything close to an epiphany. He has no spiritual side, and family ties are (ahem) mangled up in tangled-up knots.

He simply uses people without gratitude or a thought of compensation; the words “thanks” probably would choke him to death.

And yet all these personality failings aren’t the most irritating part of Inside Llewyn Davis. No, the biggest disappointment comes from the knowledge that this is a Joel and Ethan Coen film, and we wait in vain for any trace of the clever allegory, scathing character analysis or deliciously dark humor that has invigorated previous films such as Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

Solace comes there none. This new film is just a dreary slog.

The story follows Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) during what we can imagine is a typical few weeks in the winter of 1961/62, as he struggles to hustle up gigs while spending nights on the couches of the few people still willing to tolerate him. He’s a story-song purist: an angry young man determined to succeed on his own terms, and not yet aware that his brand of poetic, soul-baring angst is about to be buried beneath the hook-laden folk of Bob Dylan and the more melodic, listener-friendly music of (for example) Peter, Paul and Mary.

Not to mention the even more pernicious influence of bubble-gum pop songs.

As always is the case with a Coen brothers film, this one boasts a killer soundtrack. All the music is engaging and illuminating, not to mention a perfect depiction of the era. Isaac is persuasively credible behind a microphone, a guitar held in two capable hands; his music emerges from somewhere deep within, and for a brief moment we can imagine that he actually has something important to say.