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The Shelf: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, TRANSFORMERS ARMADA, EL DORADO

Sort of a slight week for home video releases, but there does happen to be my favorite movie of 2013, the complete series of robots that change into stuff, and some classic westerns and war movies. So, you know, it’s pretty cool stuff.

Inside Llewyn Davis

When I first saw the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I was of course taken by the music, which is all wonderful, and I thought the acting performances and cinematography were wonderful, but I came away, as I often do with a first-view of a Coen film, thinking it was sort of impenetrable. However, I kept thinking and thinking about the film for the next several weeks, bought the soundtrack, continued thinking about it and mulling over its themes, its meaning, its view of art and artists, and eventually I was compelled to see it a second time. Yes, it had become my favorite movie of the year, not unlike an insistent street performer, through sheer force of will. It’s arguably the Brothers’ most melancholic film and one of their most contemplative.

Like all Coen Brothers movies, the time and place in Inside Llewyn Davis are paramount. It takes place in New York’s folk music scene in the cold, slushy winter of 1961, and we follow a very-down-on-his-luck musician, the titular Davis, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s a very talented and soulful musician who nevertheless can’t seem to catch a break, playing the same circuit of clubs and crashing on the same sequence of people’s couches. All of this is in the aftermath of the suicide of his musical partner, with whom he shared a good amount of success, and Llewyn now seems to be unable to find his place without his other half.

To make matters more confusing and unfortunate, Llewyn might have gotten the wife (Carey Mulligan) of his good friend (Justin Timberlake), who is also a singer-songwriter, pregnant. Llewyn’s one hope seems to be in seeing the fabled Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago, who owns a club and manages top folk talent. To get there, though, Llewyn will have to carpool with a haughty jazz musician (John Goodman), his stoic partner (Garrett Hedlund), and a runaway cat.

Llewyn is frustrated and woeful, a condition that almost always leads him to make the wrong decision about things. The universe doesn’t seem to be doing him any favors either. Isaac is truly wonderful in the lead role, being thoroughly unlikable a lot of the time, but always with a sense that this guy is getting short shrift and is doing the best he can. He’s a lost soul, which is definitely hard to portray without coming across as emo.

The musical performances were all performed live on set and they’re all tremendous. Isaac has the rare gift of being able to act while singing, and he does both impeccably. It’s in these songs that we get to see Llewyn as he probably would love to be all the time: connected, soulful, moved, and at peace. The soundtrack album (which I can’t recommend highly enough) contains full studio recordings of all the songs, plus some other gems.

The Blu-ray contains only a 45 minute making-of, but that’s fairly typical for a Coen Brothers release. I love this movie to bits, so I would highly recommend giving this one a rent if not a full buy.

Read my interviews with John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham.

Transformers:Armada The Complete Series

Transformers and anime: they’re two great tastes, but do they taste great together? This is the question posed when you sit down to watch Transformers: Armada, the Japanese-American co-production animated fully in the traditional anime style. The series ran from 2002-2003 and aired in this country on Cartoon Network. It has a completely standalone continuity, separate from any of the other animated or comic book versions, and follows three school kids who happen upon Mini-Cons, which are the pawns being fought over by the heroic Autobots and the villainous Decepticons. Luckily, those kids live within walking distance of a massive desert so the robots can fight each other without too many people knowing what’s going on. Each of the kids get a Mini-Con of their own to ride on, one a scooter, one a skate board, one a bicycle, and they help the Autobots retrieve all the Mini-Cons as they appear so that the bad guys can’t get them.

Essentially, this is the whole of the 52-episode series: a new Mini-Con or weapon presents itself and the Autobots have to try to get it before the Decepticons do. As is the case with a lot of children’s anime (Pokemon, Naruto, etc.), Transformers: Armada is repetitive to the point where every episode basically follows the same formula. It’s also very much aimed at kids, so the dialogue and situations, especially concerning the young human characters, is very wide-eyed and hand-holdy. In this, the Mini-Cons more or less take the place of Energon in Beast Wars, the MacGuffin of the program that causes almost all of the conflict.

This is not to say that the series is without enjoyment by any means. While the animation and character design of the humans is very cartoonish (even for a cartoon), the Transformers themselves are all hard-lines and bright colors; clearly the animators loved drawing robots in disguise. I’m also very fond of the voice cast, in particular Gary Chalk and David Kaye, who returned to voice Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively, from their stints on Beast Wars and Beast Machines.

If you like Transformers, this is a good set for you. It’s reasonably priced and looks very crisp and clear for something not in HD. The 8 disc set contains all 52 episodes but no special features, so it’s the show or nothing.

El Dorado

I love trailers like the above for old movies. They’re always so laughable and cringe-worthy with their depiction of women. “Part girl, part wildcat” might be my new favorite saying. Regardless, as the trailer says, this is another western by the great Howard Hawks starring the Duke. A reworked telling of the same story in their 1959 collaboration Rio Bravo, this 1966 film might not be groundbreaking or as celebrated, but I think it’s a lot more fun. Wayne plays a roving gunfighter who teams up with his old pal, played by Robert Mitchum, who is the drunken sheriff of a sleepy town. They, along with hot-headed Mississippi (James Caan) have to defend a rancher from land-grabber Ed Asner and his gang of nameless guns.

There’s some wonderful banter between Wayne and Mitchum, as written by Hawks’ favorite scribe Leigh Brackett, and a lot of comedy comes at the two trying outdo each other. Caan is also very good in one of his first roles playing a young man seeking revenge but lacking any kind of ability to shoot straight. He can throw knives like a pro, but that doesn’t help too much when there’s a bunch of gunmen. So, Wayne gives him a sawed-off shotgun which takes away all need to aim. It’s hilarious.

Hawks was a great stager of action and his even, cover-the-scene style of shooting has been utilized by many younger directors, specifically John Carpenter. The final gunfight, which you can see a bit of in the trailer, is tense and exciting. Overall, it’s a really excellent western featuring two of the genre’s quickest guns.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Out of the Furnace – Christian Bale has to rescue his brother (Casey Affleck) from the clutches of a vile gangster (Woody Harrelson) in the lawless mountains.

Homefront – Jason Statham has to protect his daughter from the clutches of a vile gangster (James Franco) in the lawless plains.

Hatari! – Howard Hawks with John Wayne again, this time on the African plains as a poacher who sees the error of his ways when he meets a pretty lady.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – One of a billion films made about that infamous shootout, this one is directed by the great John Sturges and starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.

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