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.
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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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Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
That's how Ali came out in his Christmas Day bout at the box office.
The Michael Mann-directed biography overcame mixed reviews to punch up $10.2 million on its first day in release. That was not enough to knock out reigning champ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which earned $11.4 million at 1,000 more theaters, but Ali did break the record for a Dec. 25 opening.
The mawkish Patch Adams held the previous record, opening on Christmas Day in 1998 with $8 million, on its way to a healthy $135 million.
Ali, dropping to $5.8 million on Wednesday, now has $16 million.
The future of the $105 million-plus Ali rests predominately on the beefed-up shoulders of a former Fresh Prince of Bel Air and whether audiences accept him as Muhammad Ali. Critics failed to enthusiastically embrace Will Smith's portrayal of arguably one of the most famous of all sports icons, although he did receive a Golden Globe nomination for his noble but flawed attempt to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Still, Ali should serve as a strong springboard for Smith to free himself of kicking alien butt and explore other dramatic possibilities.
With the legendary fights against Sonny Liston and George Foreman serving as bookends, Ali tries to be more than the typical recount of a real-life athlete's path to glory. Mann employs Ali's life as a means to explore racial and religious tension in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, with the boxer's conversion to Islam given as much thought and detail as his efforts to gain and defend his heavyweight title.
Other recent race-driven sports biographies have gone the distance at the box office, including a pair of Denzel Washington offerings, The Hurricane ($50.6 million) and Remember the Titans ($115.6 million).
Ali, and the upcoming Men In Black 2, will allow Smith to regain his position as one of Hollywood's sure things. Smith became Mr. July Fourth when Independence Day and Men In Black opened huge in the summers of 1996 and 1997, respectively. Wild Wild West, another July Fourth holiday opening, tarnished Smith's reputation when the witless western failed to make more than $113.8 million.
Last year's The Legend of Bagger Vance, marking Smith's first dramatic endeavor since 1993's Six Degrees of Separation, could not muster more than $30.6 million.
Ali delivered a bruising blow to Kate & Leopold, pairing workaholic Meg Ryan with 19th-century blueblood Hugh Jackman. Miramax yanked the slow and corny time-traveling romantic comedy from Dec. 21 to avoid getting lost amid a slew of new releases. The ploy didn't work as well as expected, given that Kate & Leopold opened Dec. 25 with a quiet $2.5 million and has $5.1 million through Wednesday.
Kate & Leopold finds itself in the unique position of being the only mainstream offering for couples in the mood for love. Yet Ryan and Jackman face stiff competition for the adult audience in the form of Ali, the sturdy Ocean's Eleven, the waning Vanilla Sky, and such limited release offerings as A Beautiful Mind, The Royal Tenenbaums and Amelie.
Plus, even though she is very much in her element, Ryan looks extremely tired and bored with the notion of being wooed by a man from another time. Maybe she knew that hopping from one century to another didn't work not once, but twice, this year with Just Visiting and Black Knight. That's tough, because Ryan's not enjoyed a hit since 1998's You've Got Mail. Is it time for Ryan to call in a favor from Tom Hanks?
The jury is still out on Jackman, who shot to fame in 2000 as Wolverine in X-Men. He failed to sizzle opposite Ashley Judd in Someone Like You, which made just $27.3 million, and he got cuaght with his pants down in the repugnant cyberthriller Swordfish, which went offline at $69.7 million. Still, Jackman is Kate & Leopold's sole saving grace. The very personalization of charm and gallantry, Jackman could set many hearts on fires as the nobleman inadvertently removed from the New York City of his day.
Little doubt lingers now about the risk New Line took in sending director Peter Jackson off to New Zealand in 1999 with $270 million to film all three of The Lord of the Rings books back to back. Jackson's masterful adaptation of the first book, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, won over J.R.R. Tolkien fans and those completely unfamiliar with the quest to save for Middle-earth.
After debuting Wednesday, Dec. 18, with $18.1 million, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring seized the mantle as the biggest December weekend opening with its $47.2 million haul. The film broke the $100 million on Wednesday, and stands tall with $107.9 million in company coffers.
Jackson's epic looks set to dominate the box office for weeks to come, with $150 a certainty by the end of the year. Unlike Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring can count on the awards season to keep audiences spellbound by the adventures of Frodo Baggins.
Not that a certain apprentice wizard should worry. Harry Potter lost much of its magic this Christmas weekend--conjuring up an OK $10.7 million from Friday through Tuesday--but it now ranks as the year's top earner. Harry Potter's $271.1 million puts it slightly ahead of Shrek's $267.6 million, with $300 million a strong possibility.
Monsters, Inc. continues to close in on Shrek. The Disney/Pixar animated yarn scared up $5.6 million from Friday through Tuesday, with its total now at $227.9 million through Wednesday. Toy Story 2, released in 1999, remains the best grosser of all Disney/Pixar collaborations at $245.8 million.
Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc. no doubt lost some plenty of toddlers--and their parents--to the animated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Based on its name recognition, the Nickelodeon TV spin-off rocketed to a $13.8 million opening and has $22.5 million through Wednesday. That's well below the $27.3 million and $22.7 million openings of, respectively, The Rugrats Movie and Rugrats in Paris. But the boy genius looks like he has the smarts to zoom off with some serious cash.
Director Steven Soderbergh enjoyed his third consecutive $100 million smash Tuesday when Ocean's Eleven shot past $102 million in swag. The cool remake of the Rat Pack comic crime caper cashed in $106.6 million through Wednesday. Ocean's Eleven looks to head into 2002 and surpass Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich ($125.5 million) and Traffic ($124.1 million) at the box office.
Tom Cruise can't look forward to a good start to the New Year. As expected, Cruise's Vanilla Sky lost more than half its audience in its second weekend, dropping from $25 million to $12 million. Director Cameron Crowe's remake of the Spanish psychological thriller Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) has $52.5 million through Wednesday, almost equal to what Cruise's Eyes Wide Shut made in 1999. Lousy reviews and word of mouth will likely to thwart any chance of Vanilla Sky becoming Cruise's ninth film to top $100 million.
How High, with rappers Redman and Method Man as the 21st-century answer to Cheech & Chong, swiped away much of the audience from the spoof Not Another Teen Movie. How High, playing at a modest 1,266 theaters, smoked up $7.1 million in its opening weekend and has $11.2 million through Wednesday.
Not Another Teen Movie collapsed in its second weekend, dropping from $12.6 million to $5.2 million. Its total through Tuesday is $23.3 million.
The Majestic marked Jim Carrey's second consecutive dramatic flop, following 1999's Man on the Moon. Perhaps, post-Sept. 11, audiences are more interested in America engaging the enemy--hence the jingoistic Behind Enemy Lines' $45.1 million through Tuesday--than watching a community come to terms with the sacrifices required to win a war.
The Majestic opened with $4.9 million, and has $7.3 million through Tuesday, a low for Carrey since making a splash with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Man on the Moon, with Carrey as the late comedian Andy Kaufman, opened with $7.5 million on its way to $34.5 million.
Nobody put Joe Somebody on their must-see list. The workplace comedy, with Tim Allen battling bullying colleague Patrick Warburton, managed a terrible $3.5 million opening and has $5.3 million through Tuesday. That ranks as Allen's worst opening, well behind the $6 million opening that For Richer or Poorer cobbled together in December 1997. Little wonder Allen is suiting up for The Santa Clause 2.
In limited release, director Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind has $4.2 million through Wednesday. Excellent reviews, and a slew of Golden Globe nominations, will help this biography of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr. to place high in the Top 10 when it expands Jan. 4. The same should apply to The Royal Tenenbaums when it goes wider this weekend. Director Wes Anderson's third quirky comedy, with Gene Hackman, amassed a regal $1.9 million from Friday through Tuesday at just 40 theaters, with its total at $2.4 million.
Director Lasse Hallstrom's bleak adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News opened to a so-so $318,000 at 186 theaters. Perhaps this is a sign that few may want a dose of the News when it expands Jan. 4.
The final spate of Oscar contenders arrive in a limited number of theaters this week, including Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down; Robert Altman's Gosford Park; I Am Sam, with Sean Penn; Monster's Ball, with Billy Bob Thornton; and Charlotte Gray, starring the hardest working new mother in Hollywood, Cate Blanchett.