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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In March 1991 TV stations repeatedly broadcast an amateur videotape of LAPD officers kicking and clubbing Rodney King an unarmed black man. A year later an all-white jury acquitted three officers involved in the beating inciting a riot that killed 54 people and destroyed much of South Central Los Angeles. Dark Blue is a gritty police drama that unfolds in the four days leading up to the verdict. The story revolves around veteran cop Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell) who does what he needs to do to bring someone to justice even if it means planting a gun--or drugs--on a suspect. But police intimidation and corruption doesn't sit right with his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). Their ideologies clash when the two are assigned to a high-profile quadruple homicide and receive orders from a high-ranking member of the LAPD to pin the crime on innocent suspects in order to appease the public. Keough contemplates going to Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) the only black man in the department about unfair police practices but is worried about going up against such a tight brotherhood. This cop flick is disturbingly realistic--which unfortunately is also its weakness. It tells us what we already know: that the history of the LAPD is meshed tightly with racism and corruption.
Dark Blue's Perry is a vulgar hard-drinking and unscrupulous cop--and Russell (3 000 Miles to Graceland) does a great job embodying the character. He swears knocks back drinks and smokes cigarettes like he's been doing this since birth. In fact Russell creates such a despicable character that I hoped he would get his ass kicked by rioters. As his naïve partner Keough Speedman (Duets) is a little bland. Keough redeems himself by rising above the police department's practices but Speedman's character is almost too nice and fresh-faced to be a cop in a city like L.A. As Deputy Chief Holland Rhames (Undisputed) is well cast but unfortunately the character is so one-dimensional that he doesn't make for a very passionate hero. The problem here is not the acting but the film's characters which are too simply drawn. Keough for example is not only unprejudiced he's politically correct--he has a black girlfriend and gets offended when his big bad partner uses the "n" word. And Holland is not only honorable he's a churchgoing community leader. It's not that these characteristics are bad but they are certainly tautological and stereotypical by movie standards.
If this movie sounds a lot like Training Day it's because scribe David Ayer wrote both of them. Unfortunately Dark Blue's characters are drawn with such a heavy hand they reek of clichés and are a far cry from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke's complicated and well-developed characters in Training Day. Director Ron Shelton found success with the 1988 hit Bull Durham and--with the 1994 sports drama Cobb--proved that he could deliver character-driven movies that were well worth watching. Despite the rigid characters he manages to deliver a straight-up dirty-cop movie that effectively mirrors the LAPD. (Is Holland for example the film's take on former LAPD Chief of Police Bernard Parks?) Shelton achieves the film's true-to-life feel by leaving out slick car chases explosions and shootouts and paying closer attention to sets such as Perry's unadorned house and the clunker he drives. There are some great scenes towards the end of the film when Perry is driving through South Central as the riots--which caused an estimated $900 million in damages--break out. What's even more chilling however is the lack of LAPD presence at the riot epicenter.