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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We're afraid Adam Levine has a long way to go before he's in Justin Timberlake territory. Or maybe it's just that the material he was given when hosting Saturday Night Live on Jan. 26 was particularly subpar. Though he did prove an uncanny Nev Schulman in a parody of Catfish and ably lent his pipes to the latest Lonely Island digital short, when it comes to singing or comedy, we'd have to advise Levine to stick with his day job. From his opening monologue, it was clear what kind of jokes Saturday Night Live was going to insist on giving him: jokes about how handsome he is! Yeah, you can stretch that out over 90 minutes.
Obama and MLK Cold Open
Gotta admire SNL for resisting the urge to do an MSNBC/FoxNews mash-up spoof about the cablers’ totally skewed coverage of the inauguration: “That crowd is so huge!” “That crowd is so small!” Instead they went with something a bit more daring to recognize the beginning of President Obama’s second term. The ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. (Kenan Thompson) came off the mountaintop and down to earth for a chat with Obama (Jay Pharaoh). Turns out he wasn’t here for inspiration, or to pass the torch or anything like that. One guy to another, Dr. King just wanted to talk about how easy on the eyes Beyoncé was at the inauguration and how wished he could tweet from beyond so he could use the hashtag #JayZIsALuckyMan. And, of course, like all of America, living or ghosts, Dr. King was obsessed with Michelle’s bangs: “When she gets those bangs cut, she’ll be like ‘I can see at last! I can see at last! Thank God, I can see at last!” But what about how far African-Americans have come since the good Reverend’s time? Well, yes we do have a black President, but "we’re still waiting on our first black magician." Definitely a creative take on what Obama’s second inauguration means for the country and the legacy of the civil rights movement. It also goes to show that after years of struggling, Lorne Michaels & Co. have totally given up on trying to make Obama funny. Pharaoh’s take on the Commander-in-Chief is completely that of a comedic straight man, with the funny happening around Obama, not because of him.
Adam Levine’s Monologue
Once the elfin Maroon 5 frontman took the stage, the jokes quickly became more obvious. Yes, Adam Levine is handsome. Yes, he’s a judge on a hit NBC singing competition called The Voice. Thank you for reminding us of it. Oh, I’m sorry. They’re not “judges,” they’re “coaches.” Almost immediately, Andy Samberg in a dressing gown pivoted in his swivel chair to offer some comedy coaching to Levine. After all he’s “been in over a hundred digital shorts and three live sketches.” Then for a blonde bombshell wearing a delicately askew miniature top-hat, a bombshell who could properly objectify Levine, Cameron Diaz swiveled around to ask him to take off his shirt. To round out the troika was Jerry Seinfeld! Though, sadly, Seinfeld was really only there to comment on Levine’s status as a Jewish-American heartthrob and to say Newman-style, “Helloooo…Adam.” The monologue ended predictably, with Levine sans shirt.
Those amateur linguists in the commercials for the Rosetta Stone language-instruction programs sure are earnest. Why Rosetta Stone? Because it offers instruction in Thai. Why is learning Thai exciting? Because Thailand is the sex tourism capital of the world! Thus began the obviousness that would dominate the rest of the night.
Obvious comedy is one thing. That’s been a major problem on SNL for years. But Levine’s hosting gig was also marked by some odd gay-baiting jokes. See the overlong parody of a public-access TV advice show, “The Circle,” in which two gay guys (Kenan Thompson and Levine) offer “gay solutions to straight problems.” Levine’s lispy, cockatoo-haired host, who says things like “You’re as gay as a gay goose in a gay pride parade,” was borderline offensive.
The best post-cold open sketch of the night riffed on The Carrie Diaries and imagined another beloved HBO show getting an ‘80s-set high school prequel treatment: The Sopranos. It’s 1983, so that means Tony Soprano (Bobby Moynihan) wears orange shirts with upturned collars and finds himself puzzled by the presence of Ewoks, or “bear people” as he’d put it, in Return of the Jedi. He’s also still prone to fits of combustible anger, like when the high school librarian tells him to be quiet: “Oh yeah? I’ll give you a book to read! ‘Call me Ishmael,’ you son of a bitch!”
The second gay-baiting sketch of the night featured Bill Hader as a closeted fireman who’s so determined to overcompensate for his sexuality that he explodes at a fellow fireman (Levine) who’s talking to a girl he dated…nine years ago. They dated for two weeks and then he threw hot tea in her face when she tried to kiss him. Worse still, he totally flips out when he learns Don’t Trust the B--- in Apt. 23 is cancelled. “Not the B! That’s bonkers! What? What? You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Shrill and obnoxious.
Digital Short: YOLO
It was only a matter of time until Levine joined Andy Samberg for a Lonely Island digital short. This one was an anthemic pop take on the acronym YOLO, or “You Only Live Once.” But Samberg and Levine read that expression as literally as possible. Rather than live in the moment and embrace the here and now, they live in abject fear of anything even remotely dangerous and their mantra is “There’s no such thing as too much Purell.” The funny thing about hearing Levine’s soaring pipes on the chorus was to realize just how similar in form this kind of pop parody is to the real thing…and especially Levine’s own repertoire. A repertoire much more easily parodied than that of that other Lonely Island mainstay, Justin Timberlake. Samberg’s ongoing digital shorts still deconstruct contemporary pop with startling insight.
By any standard, this was another weak Weekend Update. Following in the wake of those earlier, gay-baiting jokes, now came...women-baiting jokes. Arianna Huffington (Nasim Pedrad) made an appearance and ended up saying stuff like “There’s nothing women like less than other women. There are only two types of women women like: Oprah and women Oprah like.” Really?
One remarkably brilliant bit of casting was to have Levine play his semi-doppelganger Nev Schulman from Catfish. “Catfish: The Movie was about me. Catfish: The TV Show is about you. But it’s still really about me.” He helps a woman who’s been in a 10-year online relationship with a man who’s supposedly been placed on a “Do Not Fly” List for being too handsome and lives in the Jetsons’ apartment. Again, pretty obvious. But Levine’s take on Nev—“As always I just woke up and the cameras caught me disheveled and cute”—was pretty genius.
Come down to the Dover Speedway for Joe Biden’s Biden Bash! He’s gonna play the National Anthem as an electric guitar solo, Hendrix-style. And he’ll compete with you in that classic game, “Can you jump higher than me?” Any opportunity to see Jason Sudeikis play the VP is welcome, but nothing here really felt thought-out.
Adam and Janet
Lately SNL’s final sketches have been better than average. Not so with Levine playing himself. He’s just finished a concert and has gone home to the Yonkers apartment of one of his groupees. Because the only thing funnier than gay- and women-baiting jokes are “ugly women” jokes! Yep, Bobby Moynihan was the groupee and (s)he was given to saying stuff like, “I look like when they dressed up E.T. as an old lady.” Sigh.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.