Blu Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis, Homefront and George Washington

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

WHAT: A week in the life of struggling folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who’s trying to make it as a solo artist after his former partner commits suicide. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches.

WHY: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. Structured more like a loose series of vignettes than anything resembling a plot, much of the movie rests on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, with the actor delivering a superb performance that manages to make the titular freeloader somewhat likeable. For as good as Isaac is in the role, however, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without T-Bone Burnett’s excellent soundtrack, especially when such a large chunk of the film is dedicated to the musical performances. It’s not often that a soundtrack plays such a pivotal role in my enjoyment of a movie, but it’s certainly fitting considering just how much the Coens rely on music to provide the backdrop of this bittersweet portrait of personal failure.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a 40-minute making-of featurette that focuses primarily on the planning, rehearsing and recording of the soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Homefront”

WHAT: Eager to provide his 10-year-old daughter (Izabela Vidovic) with a normal life, ex-DEA agent Phil Broker retires to a small, idyllic town in Louisiana. But when local drug lord Gator Bodine (James Franco) uncovers Broker’s past as a law enforcement officer, he teams up with a vengeful biker gang to take him down.

WHY: After working together on the “Expendables” films, it’s only natural that Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone would team up again. But what makes their latest collaboration so unique is that Stallone’s involvement is a strictly behind-the-scenes affair, serving as both screenwriter and producer. Though this neo-Western may sound like every other Statham vehicle on the surface, “Homefront” plays more like a gritty thriller than one of the actor’s typical action movies. That’s not to say that there still isn’t a fair share of action, because it’s one of the film’s highlights, but director Gary Fleder seems more interested in exploring the relationships between his characters than the fight scenes that bridge those moments. The story itself isn’t much better than your average ‘90s action movie, but the cast (which includes Winona Ryder as Gator’s biker-chick girlfriend and Kate Bosworth as his meth-head sister) elevates the material, especially James Franco playing the de facto leader of the criminal swamp gang. This isn’t the first time that the actor has gone against the grain in recent years, but it’s refreshing to see someone of his quality take on a role that’s seemingly beneath him, because it’s the difference between an enjoyable film and another direct-to-video dud.

EXTRAS: There’s a small collection of deleted scenes and an EPK-styled fluff piece with interviews from the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“George Washington”

WHAT: Over the course of one hot summer, a group of children from a decaying, rural Southern town are forced to make some difficult choices in order to cover up a tragic accident.

WHY: It’s amazing that the same man behind such stoner comedies as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” was responsible for a movie like “George Washington,” because they couldn’t be any more different. David Gordon Green’s directorial debut falls more along the lines of a Terrence Malick film in both style and execution – an irritatingly slow and pretentious cinematic poem that desperately tries to find a deeper meaning in its lyrical imagery. But while the movie’s gorgeous visuals do a great job of portraying the distressed state of the town and its characters, Green fails to deliver a compelling story, instead opting for a non-linear narrative that lacks focus or coherency. The whole thing is terribly dull, and it doesn’t help that the acting (with the exception of Paul Schneider) is every bit as amateur as its cast. “George Washington” is the kind of movie where a bunch of kids (and seemingly uneducated ones at that) wax poetic about philosophy and life like they’re graduate students, and it’s in this attempt to project a false maturity onto his characters where Green fails the hardest.

EXTRAS: There’s a veritable treasure trove of material here, highlighted by an audio commentary with director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider. The Blu-ray also includes two student shorts by Green (“Pleasant Grove” and “Physical Pinball”), a 2001 Charlie Rose interview, Clu Gluager’s 1969 short film “A Day with the Boys” and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end

If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

gravity

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

american_hustle

3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

about_time

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Movie Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Starring
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver
Director
Joel & Ethan Coen

There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in the duo’s other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that showcases a different side of the directors.

Set during the early 1960s in the middle of the New York folk scene, the movie stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a struggling musician trying to make it as a solo artist after his former singing partner commits suicide. The music business is already difficult enough to break into, but even more so for the hard-to-market folk genre, despite Llewyn’s obvious talent. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches, including musician couple Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), the former of whom Llewyn may or may not have gotten pregnant. Desperate to get out of town for a few days, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago to audition for legendary manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to December

december

Winter has officially arrived, and with it comes the final wave of award contenders hoping to leave an impression on critics and Oscar voters. Though 2013 hasn’t exactly been the best year for movies, there’s plenty of quality on display in December, including the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, new films from David O. Russell and the Coen brothers, and the latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. And for those looking for lighter fare, there’s also the long-awaited sequel to “Anchorman.”

“OUT OF THE FURNACE”

Who: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana
What: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.
When: December 4th
Why: Writer/director Scott Cooper burst onto the scene in 2009 with “Crazy Heart,” netting Jeff Bridges the Oscar for Best Actor in the process, so it’s not surprising to see that he’s managed to land some equally impressive talent for his sophomore effort. Though early word for this one has been pretty mixed, the trailers have me intrigued, particularly with such an amazing ensemble cast, which also includes screen veterans like Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. Plus, I’ll watch just about anything starring Christian Bale, because he’s one of this generation’s finest actors with his chameleon-like ability to completely inhabit any role. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a dud every now and again, but his résumé speaks for itself, and “Out of the Furnace” looks like another solid addition to an already remarkable career.

“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman
What: A week in the life of a young musician as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
When: December 6th
Why: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in their other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that boasts a superb lead performance from Oscar Isaac and one of the best (and most addictive) soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”

Who: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Orlando Bloom
What: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.
When: December 13th
Why: It’s a little ironic that the villain of this story is an avaricious reptile, because Warner Bros. could be accused of similar behavior following the decision to split “The Hobbit” into three movies. Of course, fans are hardly complaining about spending more time in Middle-earth, and now that the stage has been set with “An Unexpected Journey,” the second installment promises to be even better. Along with introducing important characters like Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), The Necromancer and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch pulling double duty), the movie also marks the return of fan favorite Legolas and newly created female elf Tauriel, neither of whom actually appear in Tolkien’s novel. It wouldn’t be the first time that Peter Jackson has tinkered with the source material, but he hasn’t let us down yet, and that’s more than enough reason to get excited about Part Two.

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