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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Remember when, for a hot second, Lindsay Lohan was supposed to play '70s porn icon Linda Lovelace in a biopic while a similar project was also being shopped around Hollywood? Well, thank god we got to see Amanda Seyfried play her first, because she is absolutely perfect in Lovelace, which debuted at Sundance on Tuesday night. Poor Malin Akerman, who took Lindsay's place, is going to have some big, um, shoes (?) to fill.
Seyfried is one of those actresses where you could always see promise (either as a ditz in Mean Girls or a conflicted polygamist in Big Love) but whose subsequent movie work has been, well, to call it "sub par" would be a compliment. (I mean, In Time anyone?) Expectations were also low for directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's Lovelace. I guess that's what happens when you make a movie about porn — everyone thinks that the product is going to be just as lackluster as its subject matter. I'm happy to report that Lovelace is far better than expectations, especially Seyfried, who gives one of those raw, vulnerable, and nuanced performances that earn ingenues their first Oscar nomination.
History already told the story of Lovelace, who grew up in New York and Florida and made the most famous porn movie of all time, Deep Throat. She later wrote a book, Ordeal, about her experience making the movie and her abusive husband, Chuck Traynor, who forced her into it. She then became an outspoken critic of the porn industry as a whole before her death in 2002.
The movie starts out like any other biopic, showing her rise to fame and the strict parents that pushed her into the arms of Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). When we get halfway through, after the making of Deep Throat, the evidence of abuse is already starting to show and it's easy to think the film will be another What's Love Got to Do with It. (Things will get worse and worse before she finally leaves.) That's when the movie plays a keen trick. Instead of continuing forward, it goes backward, reshowing the scenes we already saw but with added details. For instance, Linda and Chuck's first night as a married couple wasn't a scene of married bliss as we were first lead to believe. It was actually the first night Chuck raped Linda.
This is a keen tactic because it mimics Linda's story as it unfolded to the public and it uses our expectations of the genre and turns them on their head (though forces them on their back might be a more apt analogy). We knew her as the porn star, passing all sorts of judgements on her and her profession, and later had to rethink those things when the real nature of her relationship with Traynor came to light.
Along with Seyfried, who cannily occupies the head space of an abused woman who vacillates between trying to please everyone and trying to escape, the cast is an embarrassment of riches. The underused and always amazing Debi Mazar plays a fellow porn star, James Franco does a cameo as Hugh Hefner, Chris Noth plays a shady financier, Adam Brody as porn star Harry Reems, Hank Azaria is a badly touped director, Bobby Cannavale is a producer, and Chloë Sevigny shares one short scene with her Big Love costar as a reporter (reunion alert!). Now we need to talk about Sharon Stone, who is completely unrecognizable as Linda's harsh and disapproving mother Dorothy, who practically pushes her daughter into the arms of an abusive man and lives to regret it. It's the best thing she's done since Casino.
As for the movie itself, it has some problems. After retracing the story, it picks up six years in the future when Linda goes public with her allegations of abuse. While it's important to see what she has become, we never get to see her transformation and we never get to see just how she got away from Chuck and into a loving relationship and a quiet life on Long Island. From a journalistic standpoint, that's the information we want to know. We want to see Seyfried make the transformation from a scared bird on a porn set to a staunch domestic violence advocate on Donahue. There haven't been any actresses who started a successful career making porn, but it looks like Seyfried might be the first.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: Millennium Films]
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Poor Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow). Some years back her parents and brother were slaughtered by Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) a teacher who had developed a psychotic fixation on her. Richard went to an insane asylum but he broke out and now he’s back in town just in time for Prom Night where he resumes his pursuit of Donna and knocks off some of her friends for good measure. Bringing up the rear is dogged Detective Winn (Idris Elba) desperately trying to nail Fenton as the body count mounts. Sooner or later--and it’s much later unfortunately--Donna will come face to face with Fenton one last time. With characters as one-dimensional and dumb as these there’s not much the cast can do except stand around in their prom outfits waiting to get killed off. As the deranged killer Schaech stares glares and skulks around. Leading lady Snow widens her eyes and worries accordingly throughout while Elba tries to inject a little intensity into the stock role of the cop on the case. Working from a bad screenplay by J.S. Cardone first-time helmer Nelson McCormick displays little enthusiasm--either for the genre or for this particular film. The scare tactics are hackneyed and usually involve characters surprising each other--a gag that gets really old really quickly. When one character mutters “This is getting silly. Enough already ” we couldn’t agree more. And we’d add “boring” to that statement. It should be noted however that there’s an awfully high body count for a film rated PG-13 even if the film isn’t as bloody as one might expect. McCormick and Cardone have re-teamed on the upcoming remake of The Stepfather and if their collaboration here is any indication horror fans may have reason to be afraid--very afraid.
In the teensy-weensy town of Passaic New Jersey there exists a dying breed: a video-rental store--as in VHS not DVD. Just across the street from said store exists a power plant. And in between the store and power plant exists a doofus named Jerry (Jack Black). Yeah it’s a disaster waiting to happen (at least in writer-director Michel Gondry’s kooky mind). One night when Jerry sets out to sabotage the power plant whose microwaves he swears are killing him that disaster happens. He winds up getting zapped and even worse erasing the contents of every single tape at the nearby rental store Be Kind Rewind. It was already at risk of being demolished in favor of an aesthetic upgrade to the building but this turn of events would seem to be the nail in its coffin. And when a faithful customer (Mia Farrow) threatens to tell Be Kind Rewind’s owner (Danny Glover) unless Ghostbusters is in stock by the end of the day Jerry and his friend Mike (Mos Def) the store’s loyal employee must think and act quickly. And so they do recreating Ghostbusters and every other movie that is requested for rental. Unwitting customers are none the wiser and before long their store-made movies become a hit in the neighborhood and possibly a source of sufficient enough funds to save Be Kind Rewind from demolition. That is until Hollywood comes knockin’. Jack Black continues to expand his comedic horizons with Be Kind proving that virtually any role calling for funny has his name written on it. This isn’t his prototypical flaunt-your-paunch scream-like-a-maniac role and as a result Black’s versatility within the realm has never been so apparent. He gives the well-meaning dimwit several layers--vulnerability imagination pitifulness ambition--but maintains the recognizable energy for which we all know and love him for. Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def however is rather bland in playing straight-man to Black’s klutz. It’s occasionally a nice disparate dynamic between the two actors but Mos much like some of his past movies (16 Blocks The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) just doesn’t seem suited for the style at play. Glover meanwhile is suited for Be Kind lending stability to the quasi-fairytale as an old-school sage. Then there’s Farrow who only further tarnishes her once legendary status with another laughable role choice and performance. Of course it’s hard to ever look at Farrow the same way following her role in last year’s worst movie The Ex. In a somewhat disappointing turn of events Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Science of Sleep) screenplay for Be Kind Rewind just doesn’t make the grade. It goes from a silly conceit in the beginning to a way-too-feel-good ending using filmmaking as a sappy uniting-the-people cure-all to get from point A to B. And oddly enough the movie often resembles a traditional slapstick-y comedy. Luckily Gondry the director comes to the rescue. Chief among his accomplishments here are the meta moments the film-within-a-film sequences. The scenes are truly enlightening and elevate Be Kind a great deal. In fact a movie full of such scenes would make a great next project for Gondry--and maybe would’ve made a better project out of Be Kind. The sequences which thriftily remake mainstream classics like Ghostbusters Driving Miss Daisy and Robocop--the only kind of movies that would exist in a VHS-rental store--offer a glimpse into Gondry’s fantasy mind where the creativity wheels are always spinning and the camera is always rolling. Some of the remakes are featured in Be Kind’s trailer and it’s unfortunately one of those cases where the trailer shows the movie’s best parts. But it’s still worth seeing and his fans will likely not suffer such a letdown.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.