Love the Coopers reminds us that there are few things worse than booze-fuelled family gatherings, but one of them is definitely schmaltzy Hollywood movies about such reunions. Drawing numerous narrative threads towards a climactic yuletide dinner, the film introduces four generations of one family, who must overcome grudges and failings, let slip the odd lingering secret, and possibly realise the true meaning of Christmas.
I’ve been a devotee of the Coen Brothers since early 1992, when Barton Fink became not only the first of their films I saw, but also the first film I saw on the big screen anywhere in London’s West End (the Lumiere, since you ask). Needless to say, it has been an agonising 11-month wait since Inside Llewyn Davis first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival until I was able to experience it for myself. I had a couple of chances to catch it on flights in recent months, but felt the experience would be worth delaying until the optimum viewing conditions presented themselves, and so when it happened, at HKIFF, it had a lot to live up to, but fortunately proved well worth the wait.
In some respects the film is most similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? as it proves a meandering episodic journey through a very specific time period and sub-genre of American music. However, Barton Fink also casts a long yet welcome shadow over the central struggle of the lone artist, fighting to retain his integrity, purity and pretensions in the face of a commercialised industry. In both films it proves a Pyrrhic endeavour, as it is these very pretensions that prove the artist’s undoing.
Gorgeously shot in almost faded soft focus by Roger Deakins, the film instantly feels of its time, while Oscar Isaac gives a commanding central performance as the struggling musician, who constantly proves his own worst enemy as he battles to make a name for himself in the New York folk scene moments before Bob Dylan crashed the party.
One of the Coens’ more downbeat offerings, there is nevertheless plenty of humour throughout, not to mention the wonderful songs and a raft of fine supporting performances from the likes of Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham and Justin Timberlake – to name but a few.
Already I can tell this is a film that will reward repeat viewings and will grow more intimate, warm-hearted and cherished with each subsequent visit. The Coens continue to amaze with their versatility, craft and passion for the medium. They are among a very small group of filmmakers working in America today who strive to make cinema create new kinds of magic for them with each new project, rather than simply use it as a tool to tell a story or further the career of a particular actor. The Coens are actively facilitating the evolution of the medium, while continuing to grow themselves as artists in a way Llewyn Davis, one suspects, never will.
Not that anybody wanted it, but Mike and Sully are back, in this good natured prequel to Monsters, Inc. There are jokes aplenty but a lack of real heart in this abstinent college comedy that feels like a notable step backwards…even from Brave’s modest successes.
In what was considered by many to be an unnecessary prequel to the excellent Monsters, Inc. we learn how Mike and Sulley met at the titular hotbed of education and due to an eronious set of contrivances, are kicked off the Scaring course. The only way back is to join a fraternity and win the Scare Games (courtesy of a bet made between Mike and the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble). So, in typical college movie fashion (Animal House, Old School etc) they are forced to join a misfit collage of weirdos and outcasts in the no-hopers fraternity, only to discover that as a team they might just have what it takes to come through.
It’s all perfectly entertaining while it’s up there on the screen. Plenty of praise has been showered on the prologue (or prequel to the prequel) that sees primary schooler Mike go on a field trip to Monsters, Inc, but pretty quickly it all starts to fade into mediocrity. The first film had a smart, original premise and buckets of heart to go with the laughs, primarily in the form of young Boo, whom the boys are forced to adopt. We learn about the monsters’ ignorance of the human world, that laughter is more valuable than fear, and there is an epic rivalry between Sulley and Randy that sparks with real menace.
Here we have almost none of that, just a parade of frat boy jokes, sporting events, gags that exist solely to utilize some freakish new monster designs (and vice versa), and a scarcity of material that feels genuinely fresh and original in the way that first dozen Pixar movies did. The changing of the guard at the studio post-Up has been glaringly obvious, with Lasseter, Stanton, Doctor and Bird stepping back to allow a new generation of filmmakers to take the helm. This would be fine if the company hadn’t simultaneously lost faith in original product, instead going back to the well to rehash past victories. Sure, it worked for the Toy Story films when nobody thought it would, but Cars 2 was childish nonsense, and Monsters University is just bland and derivative.
With news of Finding Dory going into production there seems little hope of the fad changing up any time soon, and the scene at the end of Toy Story 3, when Andy hands over his beloved, humanised possessions to a new childish mind full of wonder, yet determined to remold them to suit her less-developed tastes, seems all the more poignant.