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Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most celebrated filmmakers working today. Their films, even those that fail to reach the lofty standards some have set for them, manage to be insightful, poignant and sometimes even frightening. However, their films have also been more adored by critics and film connoisseurs than the everyday filmgoer. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is perhaps their most accessible film to date. Gone are the religious complexities of “A Serious Man” or the isolating dark humor of “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading.” Instead, it’s a (mostly) straight forward drama about a struggling man trying to live day by day. It’s not their best—in fact, it hardly even feels like a Coen brothers movie at all—but its majestic musical numbers and fantastic performances elevate this well above the humdrum lesser filmmakers churn out.

Oscar Isaac, in a star making role plays the titular role of Llewyn Davis. He’s a struggling musician whose life is in the gutter. No matter what he does, seemingly everything goes wrong. After a performance one night, he’s assaulted in the alley behind the club, he’s currently homeless and living off the generosity of those closest to him who, despite their aggravation, give him a place to crash and a winter coat to wear, his solo career isn’t taking off and he even finds himself in the possession of an unwanted cat after it bolts out of one of the apartments he had been staying in. To top it all off, one of his friends and romantic flings, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, is pregnant and it might be his.

Before any of the above becomes known to the viewer, the film encapsulates it all, opening with a melancholy song about the troubles of one’s life. The folky twang of the strings, the subtle quietness of the vocals and the profundity of the lyrics set the stage perfectly for a movie that is going to be all of those things at once. A fan of folk music or not, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked in while listening to this beautiful, but heartbreaking song. Though not a musical in the traditional sense, the film is filled with similar moments like these, all coming at a time in the story that builds character, when Llewyn needs a release, something to take his mind off his troubles.

These songs are complimented wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, a typical “that guy” of cinema, one whose face is known, but the name eludes. He is magnificent here, smartly downplaying the extravagance of many musical performers and instead opting to let the pain show through. His habit of closing his eyes while performing shows not a sign of smugness, but one of passion and emotional agony. Llewyn Davis is a person who wears his emotions very close to his chest. He doesn’t let them show while out doing his day-to-day business; it’s in the quiet musical moments that they become apparent and Isaac plays it damn near perfectly in what is sure to be an underappreciated performance.

Throughout Llewyn’s journey, characters pop up and disappear as if they were never there, hardly making a blip on the overall picture’s radar. This gives the film an uneven structure, but it’s one that fits its themes, working to show the uncertainty of this man’s unhappy life. When these moments end, most are never brought up again and any type of resolution is left on the table, but it’s okay because the character himself has no resolution in sight. However, the gravity of certain stories outweighs the unobtrusiveness of others, like the aforementioned pregnancy, and it's a shame they aren’t explored in more detail. Later in the film, Llewyn even finds out he actually has a kid with a former lover, but the impact this has on his emotional state or his life in general is left frustratingly vague. Neither this nor Jean’s pregnancy have the narrative impact they should. While they should make Llewyn’s life even more complex and uncertain, they’re instead just kind of there.

The film also ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note, when you finally realize that nothing is going to be resolved, but perhaps that’s the point. This isn’t a “happy ending” type of Hollywood film, nor is it one of crushing sadness. It doesn’t leave you with hope or fear or any other feeling because Llewyn’s life has become one of apathy and the apathetic don’t bother with such feelings.

The Coen brothers have really done something interesting here. They’ve created a movie that is missing their trademark style—the style that allowed them to create jokes via the simple movement of a camera like when it passed over a corpse like a speed bump in their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”—but they haven’t lost their touch. Their abilities are downplayed and they let the performers onscreen shine. So many directors want top billing, to practically scream that they were behind it all, but there’s a refreshing lack of vanity in their approach. This isn’t going to go down as one of their best, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a treat all the same.

Inside Llewyn Davis receives 4/5


Country Strong

Last year at this time, a little film called Crazy Heart was released, much to the praise of critics and moviegoers alike. It followed a country singer battling the throes of addiction and depression. He had hit a new low in his life and we watched him as he struggled to revive his career. If you’ve seen that film, prepare for a strong sense of déjà vu as you watch Country Strong, a picture so similar it can’t help but feel like Crazy Heart-lite with the gender roles reversed. It hits the exact same beats on its journey to the credits, even going so far as to duplicate a key scene, but one pulls them off well and the other does not. Country Strong, despite a likable cast and a handful of decent songs, destroys itself due to a lackluster screenplay and melodrama that would feel out of place in a daytime soap.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the country singer this time. Her name is Kelly Canter and after a drunken onstage performance, she finds herself stuck in a rehabilitation clinic. When we meet her, she is on her way out the door a month early after her husband and manager, James, played by Tim McGraw, pulls some strings for her release. He is pushing her to straighten up and correct her image, though she is clearly still wrestling some demons. Her extramarital lover, Beau, played by Garrett Hedlund, is a musician himself and agrees to open for her on her comeback tour, but the trip is not going to be an easy one.

I was into Country Strong for its first twenty minutes or so. The songs came like rapid fire and though it sometimes felt more like an extended compilation of country songs than a movie, they were catchy and well written. None were mind-blowing, but they kept my feet tapping and my interest intact. When it did pause for dialogue, it worked. The characters were introduced and their personalities established. The sweetness that oozed in an early scene between Kelly and Beau kept me hoping for something great.

But the longer it went on, the dumber it became. The dialogue got progressively worse and the situations more histrionic. It was as if the screenwriter got bored halfway through and decided to crap anything onto the page just to be done with it. Once it resorts to a song that details everything that has happened thus far in the story, it becomes clear that the film’s ambition has evaporated.

If movies could be diagnosed with diseases, Country Strong would have bipolar disorder. It changes moods so often, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re supposed to feel. It’s humorous, but solemn; sincere, but manipulative; heartwarming, but cheesy. If it were a person, it would be jumping for joy one minute and jumping off a bridge the next.

What disappoints the most is that it tries to make a statement on the nature of celebrity, but only does so in the barest sense. It barely explores the nitty-gritty of it all, going only so far as to show what those in the spotlight will do to maintain an image without truly delving into the implications behind it. It also, in an admittedly humorous moment, touches on the overt patriotism of country musicians and fans, but again, brushes it to the side in favor of its nonsense script.

Country Strong had its parts aligned. It had a talented cast (with this and The Blind Side, Tim McGraw is proving himself to be quite an actor) some fun songs and a tried-and-true story that proved meaningful when told well, but it just stinks. It’s capped off with an ending that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t wholly make sense up to that point, but if you decide that Country Strong is worth your time, you’ll be fed up with it long before then.

Country Strong receives 1.5/5


Tron: Legacy

The original Tron was a groundbreaking film. It wasn’t particularly good, but it did something no other film had done before. It created an entire living digital world. It was basically Avatar for 1982. It had great visuals (for its time), but it had no soul. Its sequel, Tron: Legacy, which sported one of the most promising trailers to be released this year, is much the same. It’s a beautiful piece of eye candy that is as hollow as films come.

The story begins in 1989. Kevin Flynn (a young digitized Jeff Bridges) is tucking his son, Sam (played at this age by Owen Best), into bed and telling him a story about Tron, the grid and the so called “miracle” that is about to occur. Afterwards, Flynn heads off to work, but never comes back. He has disappeared and nobody knows where he has gone. Twenty years later, Sam (now played by Garrett Hedlund) is all grown up and living alone. His father’s company, Encom, is being run by others because he refuses to head it himself (which is of little significance to the movie). When one of Flynn’s old friends, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), who still rocks a pager, receives a page from the number of Flynn’s old rundown arcade, which hasn’t been in operation for many years, Sam goes to check it out. There he stumbles on his dad’s old workspace and, after tinkering around with the controls, accidentally transports himself onto the grid, a digital space where an evil program called Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges) rules and forces programs to compete in a series of games.

At its best, Tron: Legacy is a visually arresting world of fancy and wonderment. At its worst, it’s a superficial piece of nonsense that lacks emotion and an engaging story. Unfortunately, visuals only get you so far. What this movie needed was a different script because the one it has is just awful. The entirety of the film is smothered in boring exposition that drags on for far too long and when it isn’t talking in technological psychobabble, it comes off like a really bad melodrama, taking the already ridiculous dialogue and littering it with over emotional gushiness. In a movie wishing to be fun, that's the wrong road to take.

Similarly, the action is boring and uninspired. Its visuals may be state-of-the-art, but its action certainly isn't. Most of what you see here was presented in the original movie. There’s a disk battle, a light cycle race and more, but the only thing separating it from its predecessor is its shinier coat of paint. And in close combat, it does nothing countless other films haven’t done, merely replacing swords with data disks.

There are some big problems with Tron: Legacy, but there are a myriad of smaller ones as well. As stated, the visuals are very impressive, but its digital recreation of a young Jeff Bridges comes at a price. Because his face is covered by computer effects as Clu, the physical emotion and facial expressions in his performance—which is underwhelming to begin with—are hidden. When he’s acting as the aged Flynn, the effect isn't much better. At times, the Dude from The Big Lebowski surfaces, which is funny if you’re familiar with that movie, but it’s contextually inappropriate and shatters the illusion that you’ve been transported to another world. Likewise, Michael Sheen pops up in a small role and at one point seems to channel the spirit of Charlie Chaplin, which is, again, unfitting in this universe.

Those small problems, which also include random, unnecessary interjections within certain scenes, add up to much more than a mild nuisance and contribute in breaking up the flow of the film. No matter how you cut it, Tron: Legacy just isn’t very good. It’s a shallow, heartless, empty movie with snazzy special effects and little else.

Tron: Legacy receives 1.5/5