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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Based on the true story of Ernie Davis the first black athlete ever to win college football’s prized Heisman Trophy The Express effectively details the struggle this man went through in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Starting when he is a young boy living with his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) in the deep South Davis (Rob Brown) shows a penchant for football and with the support of his family he wins a scholarship to Syracuse University where he follows in the storied footsteps of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Welcomed by coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) Davis is soon the star of the team. But racism rears its ugly head not just with rivals but also among fans attending the games and even among some of his own teammates including the obnoxious Bob Lundy (Geoff Stults). Davis’ climb to the top ranks of the college game his quest to join the pros and follow Brown to Cleveland and a personal life-changing tragedy are all detailed with heart. As Davis Rob Brown acquits himself nicely and is totally convincing as one of the all-time college football greats. He uncovers the passion drive and sheer determination of a player who triumphed against personal and societal odds to become a legendary champion. Along with Justin Martin’s (as the young Ernie) contributions we get the full picture of a poor Southern boy who never stopped overcoming whatever drawbacks life threw at him. Quaid as the legendary Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder is wonderful losing himself completely in the soul of a man who guided the early careers of two of the greatest African-American athletes ever. With a craggy face cap and heavy glasses Quaid seems like the real thing. In his few scenes Dutton registers warmly as Davis’ grandfather. As friend and teammate Jack Buckley Omar Benson Miller proves his bravura turn in Miracle at St. Anna was no fluke. He brings humor and smarts to a nice supporting role. Stults is rather one dimensional as the race-baiting Lundy but the script doesn’t give him much more than that. Director Gary Fleder tries hard to steer this story away from the conventional traps of the sports movie genre but doesn’t really succeed. This is standard issue inspirational stuff that we have seen a hundred times. Like the best of these formula dramas however it’s the individual story and struggle we can relate to. Fortunately for all involved Ernie Davis has an amazing story to tell--particularly in the film’s final act. For those who don’t like football however the generous dose of it on display here will probably send you over the edge. Fleder clearly figures audiences drawn to The Express are there for the pigskin action and he delivers with brilliantly choreographed and edited recreations of Davis’ dazzling career on the field. With music ramped up crowd excitement at a fever pitch and very impressive moves from the key actors this is some of the most authentic game action we’ve seen in a long time. For fans of the game and one of its greatest young players The Express throws a cinematic touchdown.
Don’t get me wrong--Gervais’ acerbic socially reclusive dentist Bertram Pincus isn’t really the catch of the century. On the contrary. He’d rather drink battery acid then have to speak to anyone directly including his attractive new neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni). But Bertram gets a severe attitude adjustment when he accidentally dies--for seven minutes--during a routine colonoscopy. When he comes back from the dead so to speak he can suddenly SEE the dead--ghosts with unfinished business who follow Bertram around and try to get him to help them. This includes Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants Bertram to break up the impending marriage of his widow the very same lovely Gwen. At first Bertram tries to very hard to ignore the request--until he gets a good look at Gwen and decides it might be worth it after all. Now Bertram just has to convince her he isn’t really the total twit he seems to be. Good luck with that. When Gervais won the Golden Globe in 2001for his achingly funny BBC series The Office most of us Yanks were like “Who is that?” Then he came up and gave one of the more hilarious acceptance speeches--and well a star was born. He certainly hasn’t disappointed since turning in another hit comedy show Extras for HBO--and now movies. Whether he’d admit it or not Gervais has leading man qualities in that very offbeat British way master of the miscommunication and half-finished sentences. And playing off veteran comic actors such as Kinnear and Leoni in Ghost Town only make Gervais look even better. Leoni is especially fetching in her breezy role as Gwen an Egyptologist who could be a total nerd if not for her charm and sense of humor. The chemistry with Gervais is odd at best but they make it work AND seem believable. There are a few scenes she does with Gervais where you just know it took a lot of takes because she couldn’t quit laughing. I know I certainly wouldn’t have been able to. Ghost Town’s head honcho David Koepp is definitely known more for his writing than directing having penned such scripts as Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull War of the Worlds and Spider-Man thus the reason Ghost Town shines as it does. The premise isn’t anything groundbreaking but the dialogue is spot-on. Co-writing with John Kamps Koepp manages to mix both screwball comedy with poignancy without it seeming too silly or too syrupy while the plot moves along at a nice pace. And Ghost Town has one of those feel-good endings (a rom-com must have) you don’t really expect to feel as good about as you do. Koepp’s other directorial efforts included Secret Window and Stir of Echoes but it seems romantic comedies are now and should always be his forte.
As the real-life 1950's pin-up girl Bettie Page actress Gretchen Mol shakes her moneymaker in this true-American-story drama. Page a Tennessee-raised religious cutie moves to New York in 1949 for a new life when college dreams don't materialize. She's a trusting soul who loves to pose for strangers' cameras and naturally falls into modeling. In no time she's wearing suggestive lingerie and trading spankings with other models. To Bettie the bondage get-ups are silly not prurient. But despite efforts to expand herself and learn acting she remains a pin-up girl. In Bettie's most famous picture she's posing nude in a Santa hat in a 1955 Playboy magazine. After testifying at Congress amid the sexual Puritanism of the '50s Bettie realizes her "notorious" reputation. She quits the biz for her religious beliefs and disappears from the public eye for good. Mol's performance is described in press materials as "incandescent." It is brave to say the least. The actress’ movie career has needed a jolt since she was labeled the next “It” girl in the late ‘90s after starring with Matt Damon in the 1998 Rounders. Her last film was Neil LaBute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. But Mol finds her niche in Notorious. She plays Bettie as she was--a simple-minded and free-spirited character which can be a dangerous combination. The actress doesn't add impresario nuances to the pliable young woman beyond the Southern accents but it is an incandescent performance nonetheless. Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) brings her rough features to Paula Klaw Bettie's tough-minded manager transitioning from the Emmy-nominated success of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Mol and Taylor play off each other very well. Recent Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) also sneaks in there as a Southern senator calling for pornography investigations. In the hands of director/writer Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner Notorious snaps along like an old crime noir quick like a paperback on the beach. It is ironic and biting smoldering with sexuality but the melodramatic intentions are obvious. The dialogue lapses into clunky spots occasionally but they seem deliberate. The script's potency should not be understated. It's a statement about government's role in bedroom matters and the side effects of an American society prudish about its sexuality. Harron seems a sharp-edged journalist a chronicler of 20th century America and recruited Oscar-nominated researcher Sam Green (The Weather Undergound) to strengthen the movie's veracity such as recreating '50s-era Times Square. Bygone technical methods such as Super 8 cameras are used to match the classy black-and-white photography. Notorious is a little rough but fairly successful in its mission.