Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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Writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) adapts his Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play Doubt for the big screen keeping all the themes that made the original work such a hit on stage. Set in 1964 the film version opens up much of the talky proceedings and sets the action in a wind-swept Brooklyn Catholic school where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to shake up the status quo and introduce a little more free thinking. These actions cause instant friction with the stern Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who immediately butts heads with Flynn. Significant change already is taking place as the school has admitted its first black student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When mild-mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suggests that perhaps Father Flynn is spending too much personal time with Donald it sets Sister Aloysius off on an ill-considered crusade to get rid of Flynn triggering a battle of morals will and yes doubt in the minds of both the characters and the audience. Rather than casting some of his Tony-winning actors from the play Shanley decided he wanted a blank slate bringing in a new interpretation to the material. Obvious choice for the taciturn Sister Aloysius is Meryl Streep who using a slight Brooklyn accent convincingly tears into the role that won acclaimed actress Cherry Jones a Tony. Streep plays it broadly and the onscreen fireworks between her and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Flynn are indeed spectacular. Acting just doesn’t get much better than this particularly for Hoffman who is amazing as the charismatic priest walking the thin line between personal conviction and guilt. Adams doesn’t really get the big scenes but portrays Sister James’ hopeful innocence and naiveté with just the right amount of sugar -- not too sweet not too dark. Top honors in the cast go to Viola Davis as Donald Miller’s mother. Taking what is essentially a 10 minute role Davis will tear your heart out as she desperately pleads with Streep to let Donald stay in school. John Patrick Shanley clearly has a personal stake in this material and returns to directing for the first time since his ill-fated Joe vs. the Volcano in the early ‘90s. He seems much more at home with this more intimate piece casting it smartly and using the weather --including the use of a haunting rustling wind -- as a key part of the background ambience. Doubt is exactly the kind of traditional Broadway adaptation Hollywood used to do so well particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Shanley smartly doesn’t try to muck it up with any flashy filmmaking tricks. He lets his quartet of superior actors do most of the work turning Doubt into one of the best stage adaptations in many many years.
It isn’t until later on in The Departed that you realize how important and well-crafted its beginning is: Two Bostonians Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) nearly cross paths when they’re interviewed in succession by Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen). Costigan is chosen to infiltrate the mob in order to get to Boston’s most feared boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and he’ll have to put in some time in the slammer and on the streets before gaining a shred of cred; meanwhile Sullivan clean-cut and articulate is pulling the ultimate job for Costello by infiltrating the state police department and alerting the mob boss of their every move. As the two moles become more involved in their undercover operations the groups they’re infiltrating begin to smell something fishy. And so commences the chess match between Costigan and Sullivan to reveal each other before their respective pseudo-colleagues do. For any actor who truly enjoys the art of his job more so than the sexy periphery of it all something as collaborative as The Departed must seem like the proverbial “candy store.” Maybe that explains why DiCaprio Damon Nicholson and Wahlberg all signed up instead of carrying their own separate blockbusters for likely a much bigger payday. DiCaprio and Damon do what they do in every movie: give their best performances to date. Each plays completely against type flaunting the fact that genuine movie superstardom isn’t born out of good looks alone. For Nicholson his career nearing the half-century mark it’s no longer easy to qualify and rank his performances but Costello is one of his high points in a career pretty much devoid of anything but. As likely the lone Oscar contender (amongst the cast) Nicholson is equal parts monstrous and wry--or better yet equal parts Jack Torrance and The Joker. Wahlberg steals the funniest lines especially with his inborn Boston accent but Sheen often catches them before they’re allowed too much laughter. It doesn’t end there though: Alec Baldwin (as a fellow officer) soon-to-be breakout star Vera Farmiga (as a police shrink who ends up playing a central role) Ray Winstone (as Costello’s right-hand man) and Anthony Anderson (as a young cop familiar with both Costigan and Sullivan) all shine. Unprecedented chemistry amongst an unprecedented cast is as much a theme here as revenge! It is a privilege to watch a legend who is still so relevant: Martin Scorsese. The iconic director is responsible for some of film’s all-time masterpieces (Taxi Driver Raging Bull Goodfellas) but perhaps never has he seemed so vigorous. The Departed is a return to form for him in its vulgarity and casual-as-waking-up violence--the man makes exploding brain bits look like masterful spin art but somehow never gratuitous; however the film is not a return to straight-ahead mob flicks which would be a copout. His mere aura commands actors’ best-ever performances and does he ever get them here. But it’s Scorsese’s party thanks to his trademark grit and urban storytelling for no one makes the bad look so damn good! His prowess is indubitable but it’s hard to imagine him doing it without a superb script rewrite of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs from Boston’s own William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven). His story is not flawless all the time--for one thing Farmiga’s character is the story’s thinly veiled crutch--and it could be argued that the gunshots are exploitatively deafening but this is no time to nitpick. It’s time to sit back feel tense and enjoy the show!