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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The tragic opera tells the story of a disfigured musical genius (Gerald Butler) who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera waging a reign of terror over its occupants [cue the organ music]. Think The Elephant Man meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame--except this particular "monster" has some serious sex appeal. I mean honestly his only "disfigurement" is some scarring on one side of his face which he covers with a rather classy mask. No big whoop. But I digress. When he falls desperately in love with the lovely ingénue Christine (Emmy Rossum) who has lived in the opera house for most of her life the Phantom devotes himself to molding the young soprano into a star exerting a strange sense of control over her as he nurtures her extraordinary talents. But when Christine falls for the dashing Raoul (Patrick Wilson) all hell breaks loose as the Phantom's growing jealousies threatens to tear everyone apart [OK now it's really time to cue the organ music].
Fans will no doubt be happy their favorite musical has finally made it to the big screen but the musical's original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman have been replaced in the movie version by hot young actors. This is a very wise decision considering the film's rather longwinded nature. In other words even though the Phantom performers keep singing and singing and then sing some more at least they are appealing to watch (and they did do all their own singing). Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) is particularly effective as the Phantom all brooding mysterious and far more intriguing a suitor than pretty boy Raoul played blandly by Wilson (HBO's Angels in America). With her alabaster skin and long luscious locks Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) also does a nice job as Christine. But she is unfortunately limited to only a few range of emotions--either all doe-eyed and somber over her Phantom doe-eyed and gushy over Raoul or just plain doe-eyed. As for the supporting players Minnie Driver nearly steals the show as the Italian soprano diva La Carlotta. As the only breath of fresh air in the musty opera house you definitely crave more of her.
It's taken about 15 years to bring Webber's smash hit to the big screen. Apparently after winning every known theater award for Phantom the legendary producer-composer approached director Joel Schumacher in 1988 to do the movie after being impressed by Schumacher's work on The Lost Boys. Hmmm The Lost Boys to Phantom of the Opera--I'm still trying to tie that one together. Anyway Webber had to postpone production for personal reasons and then Schumacher was busy doing such films as Tigerland and Phone Booth. Finally the time was ripe to make Phantom coming on the heels of the musical movie boom started by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. Schumacher certainly incorporates all the right elements from the young and talented cast to the opulent sets and magnificent costumes. The problem is the material: Phantom really isn't all that compelling of a story. Sure the stage production was and still is a theatrical event especially as the Phantom moves on catwalks all over the theater and the impressive chandelier comes crashing down on the stage. But for the film adaptation there needs to be something more than just grand posturing set pieces and operatic music. Maybe a little more dialogue? A sex scene? Anything?
Things haven't changed much since we last saw teen spy Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz): His parents (Cynthia Stevenson and Daniel Roebuck) are still in the dark about what their now 16-year-old son does for a living and drop him off for the summer at Kamp Woody which is really secret teen CIA training program. But it turns out the camp's director Diaz (Keith Allen) is a rogue CIA agent who has stolen a top-secret mind-control device that he plans on individually implanting into the teeth of the world's leaders in order to rule the planet. When he escapes to London to begin his evil undertaking Cody must pose as a student at an elite boarding school for musically gifted kids to get close to his target who is in cahoots with the headmistress' husband. As if that was not enough Cody also has to deal with his new "handler " the clumsy buffoon Derek (Anthony Anderson) who keeps botching up their plans all while keeping his identity a secret from the other students at school. Will he succeed in stopping the bad guys from taking over the world?
Poor Muniz. The Malcolm in the Middle star has fallen prey to studio execs who seem eager to jump on the teen spy bandwagon by riding on the coattails of Spy Kids' appeal and the modest success of its original film rather than churning out a decent PG flick. While Muniz is still charming as Cody an adolescent wise beyond his years his character comes across as a stick in the mud when paired with a slapstick character such as Anderson's Derek. In the first film Muniz got to act like a kid an inadequate teen smitten by his agency mentor Ronica played by Angie Harmon. Here none of the characters seem to have any common sense and Cody is forced to be the mature one. This switch sort of takes the fun and innocence out of it. And poor Anderson. The comedian is stuck in the role of the inept CIA reject whose disguises perpetuate every black stereotype imaginable including a cook "straight outta Compton" and robe-wearing African. Hannah Spearritt who plays Emily a Scotland Yard agent also posing as a student is the brightest addition to the cast but her role is almost marginal in this sequel.
Director Kevin Allen who brought us the 2000 hairdressing comedy The Big Tease delivers a teen actioner that mechanically plods through its formulaic script. The film has all the ingredients necessary for a delectable spy pic--cool gadgets exciting chases diabolical villains covert hideouts--but the end product is as bland as kidney pie. While the original Agent Cody Banks had a sophisticated sense of humor to it this sequel is clumsy and crass. Cody's awkwardness around the opposite sex in the original film for example was sweet. Here the team of writers--Don Rhymer Harald Zwart and Dylan Sellers--injects perverted overtones into the film that are just so wrong. Take "Kamp Woody " bandleader Mr. Jerksalot the invariable references to Cody's instrument and the boatload of phallic-looking weapons including a retainer that can act as a receiver with proper tongue manipulation or Diaz's giant charged flashlight. For viewers who somehow missed the writers' not-so-clever nuances there is plenty of unoriginal dialogue to roll your eyes at including the Brit gem "Don't get your knickers in a twist."
When he was 12 years old Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) was recruited to attend a summer camp secretly run by the CIA. Four years later the Agency comes knocking on his door with a mission: He must get close to Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff) a prep school student in Cody's home town and the daughter of a scientist developing deadly nanobot technology for the evil organization ERIS. Problem is Cody is not the most confident guy when it comes to girls and meeting Natalie proves to be a mission in itself. Luckily for Cody his agency mentor is the stunning Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon) who knows a thing or two about relationships. Cody must now prove himself as an agent and stop ERIS from completing its mission. Can he do it? And more importantly will he get the girl? With its crop of predictable gadgets and two-dimensional villains Agent Cody Banks MGM's answer to James Bond for 'tweens is not too imaginative. But its likeable cast and characters make this pic a tolerable undertaking.
Muniz is only 16 years old but he's hardly a newcomer to Hollywood. He stars in Fox's hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle and has two features My Dog Skip and Big Fat Liar under his belt. Muniz doesn't come across as a manufactured Hollywood kid actor and there is something refreshing about the fact that he doesn't use puppy dog eyes or speak childishly to wring sympathy out of moviegoers. He possesses an intelligence that comes through in his work especially here where he plays a quick-thinking operative. Duff meanwhile stars in her own hit Disney Channel series Lizzie Maguire a comedy about a young teenager and her animated alter ego. In Cody Banks Duff plays Natalie a smart and clever teen who doesn't have to follow the pack to be popular. Together Duff and Muniz make a snappy little onscreen duo. Rounding out the cast is Harmon (formerly of NBC's Law and Order) as Cody's proctor. Harmon obviously saw the humor in this part and ran with it. You'll love her leather outfits and shoulder-pad stuffed cleavage.
Director Harald Zwart's pint-sized secret agent flick is packed with silly but entertaining action sequences. The film starts off on a high as Cody jumps on his skateboard to save a toddler trapped inside a runaway car in a thrilling high-speed rescue. Although Agent Cody Banks has some lively action the storyline is a bit derivative and follows the basic spy formula of good versus evil complete with bald scarred villains seeking to destroy the world for no reason other than to be well evil. The gadgets--an important part of any spy movie--are also basic fare (think suction cup shoes and x-ray vision glasses). But the film is still fun to watch because a) it only runs 96 minutes leaving little time for boredom to set in b) it's got a really likeable cast and c) it doesn't take itself seriously. Zwart who directed the 2001 comedy One Night at McCool's lightens the film with some humorous touches here and there including playing Nelly's "Hot in Herre" whenever Ronica Miles makes a sultry entrance.