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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S2E14: Ah, another Modern Family Valentine’s Day episode. I guess its a little unfair to say that considering there has been only one other - ah forget it. IMAGINE ME NAAAAAAKED!
This was a fantastic episode, but the reappearance of Dylan on the flatbed truck, with full band in tow and a new song dedicated to Haley? Icing on the cake, my friends. Combine that with Phil and Claire getting it on, Jay and Gloria riding wild on their new bike, and Cam and Mitchell celebrating a quiet evening all at the same time? Glorious.
What made it so perfect, besides being hilarious, was that each family represented a different aspect of the same theme. As we’ve seen, when every family is connected (even by the smallest thread) it makes the episode better as a whole. The theme this week, at least for me, was what makes being in a relationship awesome: Dylan showing Haley romance through theatrics, Phil and Claire showing it by getting it on, Jay and Gloria by trying to make the other happy, and Cam and Phil by just being content with each other. It was sweet, totally unnecessary, flamboyant, heartwarming, and funny. Basically what Valentines Day is really all about.
Before getting into the individual story lines - I just have to point out the reservation at Ibiza’s. Each couple used the SAME reservation, all at different times, and each for different reasons. And if we think the coda where Cam and Mitchell order take out is from Valentine’s night, then no family actually ate at the restaurant. It's a little thing, but it separates Modern Family from the rest.
"I’m usually good at catching things from women in bars." -Phil
Phil and Claire start off this year’s Valentine’s Day doing the opposite of what they did last year, i.e. trying to keep the passion going. They make reservations at a swanky place but when they’re surrounded by old people (and Phil takes off in a Jazzy) Claire decides to rekindle the spark. So once again out comes Julianna and Clive Bixby. And once again, Phil messes everything up. He doesn’t understand the subtleties of Claire’s ruse but in Phil’s defense, I wouldn’t want to upset Claire either so his actions are sorta justifiable. But he grabs the wrong key and ends up in some lady’s hotel room. Hijinks ensued.
"It defeats the purpose of Valentine’s Day if you make it into some silly competition." -Jay
"Shut up, I win." -Gloria
Jay and Gloria started off the weaker story this week (turns out there weren’t any weak stories this week), but by the end it redeemed itself. Jay wanted to trick Gloria into thinking he had forgotten and flubbed up Valentine’s Day when he had actually catered a fancy dinner back at the house. The reservation screw up was just a red herring. But when they get back, the dinner and show weren’t set up. Turns out Gloria had turned one on him and set up the dinner in the garage. And also bought him a motorcycle. Take that, Gloria’s dress, and her line “Shut up, I win” and we have one of the stronger Jay and Gloria stories this season.
"‘Well pick out china and move to Vermont." -Mitchell
Cam and Mitchell was another surprisingly good story this week. Cam is initially jealous of Mitchell’s new assistant who Cam thinks has a crush on Mitchell. Mitchell denies it but secretly enjoys it. But then Cam comes to the office one day and realizes that the assistant actually has a thing for him. Or so he thinks. They get into a petty argument (again) about who is recipient of the crush and they’re about to drive over to the dude’s house when he texts Mitchell his resignation. Of course, he doesn’t make it clear who he had the hots for but it was a sweet ending. Also, the return of Cam’s bike shorts? Still one of the best dick jokes on network television.
"She’s had the romantic. She’s had the intelligent. Now how about all that in one little brown package?" -Manny
Then we come to the kids. I’ve just about come to the conclusion that each week will have one kid missing and probably for child labor law reasons, but this week we actually see every kid but Luke doesn’t say anything! HOW CAN YOU TEASE US LIKE THIS MODERN FAMILY? NOT COOL, BRO.
Anyway, Haley breaks up with her latest BF, the nerd. She’s feeling unsure about this but luckily the doctor of love himself, Manny, is there to swoop in and sweep her off her feet. Haley is apprehensive at first but eventually listens to his advice, but then Dylan shows up with the flatbed and she runs right back into his arms. Awwwwww. Then a very odd thought popped into my head. I know Manny’s relationship to Haley is supposed to be like a boyhood crush, but Manny is Haley’s uncle. Step uncle, but uncle still. Which makes Manny a well articulated creepy uncle. You’re welcome for that thought.
In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.
Life’s never exactly been a walk in the park for Rooster (Antwan Patton) and Percival (Andre Benjamin) even when they were childhood best friends but things are about to get real messy. Now grown up and living in the 1930s South--Idlewild Georgia to be exact--they remain close and even work together. Rooster the more flamboyant of the two is the emcee and Percy the piano player at a place called Church which is “anything but.” Church is a speakeasy beloved by locals but after a gangster (Terrence Howard) forcibly removes the club’s former owner (Faizon Love) the new regime is considerably tighter especially for Rooster who has to answer to the new guy in charge. Rooster is all about business and is concerned about keeping Church in operation. Percy meanwhile is torn between love for a woman (Paula Patton) and allegiance for his widower dad (Ben Vereen). But nothing will get resolved before the gunpowder settles. As Outkast Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000) and Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi) have set pop music on fire while maintaining hip-hop cred. In Idlewild they try to continue that along with taking over a new medium; the results are mixed. Patton the one with seemingly no aspirations of movie stardom actually gives the stronger performance of the two. This is just his second film yet he coolly slides right into this role one that should’ve entailed more dialogue and less rapping. For Benjamin he has certainly displayed acting chops before but his wounded puppy dog Percy does not suit the actor at all. A role with more external drama would seem optimal for him. Benjamin does seem deeply committed to acting though so there’s reason to have faith. But it’s Howard yet again who absolutely pilfers the show making everyone look like mere rappers trying to cross over. His Hustle and Flow hype now calmed Howard proves that he is anything but a one-hit wonder. Bryan Barber is Outkast’s go-to music-video director who’s making his feature debut with Idlewild; both of those facts speak volumes about his writing/directing effort here. As such the film is loaded with bright spots usually consisting of the dance sequences and the overall style and major cinematic blemishes as can be expected for a first-timer. In other words the core elements--i.e. the script and direction--are a mess but the peripheral elements--i.e. the look and sound--are dazzling. Part of the problem is the timing of the release: This film is supposed to do too many things from launching Benjamin into movie stardom to coinciding with the actual Outkast album/soundtrack release and that ambition is a microcosm of the flaws. But most of all there is simply too much going on here. Anachronisms run rampant where they shouldn’t and the same can be said for some of the songs--the vulgar rap played against the film’s Southern themes doesn’t always quite work as the intended contrast is sometimes overbearing.