THE DVD SHELF: "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Breathless" and "Boardwalk"

By Steven Suskin
March 16, 2014

This month's column focuses on Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis," Jean-Luc Gerard's "Breathless" and the Ruth Gordon/Lee Strasberg "Boardwalk."



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Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen continue their string of arresting and intriguingly offbeat dramas with "Inside Llewyn Davis" [Sony]. Here we have a Greenwich Village folksinger, circa 1960, struggling to find his footing following the suicide of his singing partner. He sings at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street when he can get a booking; crashes with the husband-and-wife members of a Peter, Paul & Mary-type act, getting the Mary-type pregnant; loses and finds and loses and finds a cat; fights with everyone, friend or foe; and more or less disintegrates. This being a Coen film, there are odd storylines (like that escaped cat) and odd characters (like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz musician Davis joins on a road trip to Chicago).

Oscar Isaac is quite a find as Davis. A Juilliard graduate, he played the role of Proteus (first originated by Raul Julia), in the 2005 Shakespeare in the Park production of the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona. One suspects that he could prove a valuable stage actor, although the aftermath of "Llewyn Davis" will probably keep him occupied on screen. He is joined by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as the folk-singing couple, Garrett Hedlund as a Village poet and the aforementioned Mr. Goodman. Also of note are stage actors Stark Sands and Adam Driver — both of whom do their own singing, including a humorous turn on a novelty song by Driver — and F. Murray Abraham.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a mood piece, and I suppose it helps if you are in the right mood. I found the film engrossing, with the locations — still-existing and recreated — providing a look at the "real" Village in the days before the beatniks were displaced by the hippies. Special features include "Inside Inside Llewyn Davis," a 40-minute "making-of" documentary featuring the Coen brothers, music producer T Bone Burnett, Isaac and assorted cast members.

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Jean-Luc Gerard's "À bout de souffle" (1960) was not the first film of the New Wave movement that overtook the French cinema in the late 1950s and quickly influenced filmmakers around the world. It was one of the best, though, and over of the most important. Criterion has now transferred it to a sparkling new Blu-ray, under the more familiar title "Breathless."

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Shot on location and on the move — much of it seems to have been filmed at will, without advance preparations or permissions — we get a Paris which is very much alive. In an early scene, the hero (a stunning Jean-Paul Belmondo) finds a revolver in the Cadillac he has just stolen and arbitrarily uses it to shoot a policeman. This typifies the film, both in plot and composition; in another scene, he jumps out of a taxi, runs to the sidewalk, lifts the skirt of a passerby, then jumps back into the cab. Arbitrary, but strangely right for the new (wave) world of "Breathless." Belmondo went on to a long and successful career, but the sight of him staring at himself in the mirror and rubbing his lips will remain with you, as will Jean Seberg, as a young American peddling the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune along the boulevards. The 21-year old Seberg, in her striped shirt and sunglasses, is quite something; she would soon be mixed up with the F.B.I and the blacklist, and would die an apparent suicide in 1979. She would also be celebrated posthumously in her own musical, like Evita. The Marvin Hamlisch/Peter Hall Jean Seberg, though, was a quick flop when produced by the Royal National Theatre in 1983.

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Finally, we have one of those more-or-less disappeared films that turn up from time to time called "Boardwalk" [MVD Visual]. The time: 1979. The place: Coney Island. The plot: An elderly couple fights for survival against toughs taking over their run-down neighborhood. What makes this of more than passing interest is the presence of Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg in the leading roles. Eighty-two year old stage veteran Gordon had received a late-in-life Oscar 11 years earlier, for "Rosemary's Baby;" seventy-eight-year old Strasberg, director of the Actor's Studio, had suddenly become a sought-after character man with his Oscar-nominated appearance five years earlier in "The Godfather Part II." Thus, there was — and remains — a reason for watching this film from director/writer Stephen Verona. Janet Leigh, of "Psycho," costars. The cast also includes former stage and screen star Lillian Roth, whose 1954 autobiography about her battle with alcoholism was filmed as "I'll Cry Tomorrow" and who made two Broadway comebacks in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and 70, Girls, 70.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)