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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)
Llewyn Davis’s life is made up of a series of near epiphanies. The scruffy folk singer (played by Drive's Oscar Isaac), and titular character of Joel and Ethan Coen's new film Inside Llewyn Davis, wears a constant state of dishevelment like a second skin, always seeming to be on the verge of a breakthrough, yet managing to elude it due to a benign fear of rejection that is all too familiar to any artist. The Coens paint a portrait of the artist as a young and misanthropic fellow, but they also look upon him with genuine affection, a warmth that isn’t lost to audiences despite the film being set against the backdrop of a harsh New York winter. The duo behind No Country for Old Men and Fargo sing an ode to the working musician, molding Llewyn with a craft and care akin to Catch-22's seemingly hopeless and hapless Yossarian. Featuring the eccentric caricatures that usually appear in most of the Coens' films, Inside Llewyn Davis is a smart, thoughtful and entertaining character study of an ordinary but talented man stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of mistakes and missed connections. It is easily one of the best films of the year thanks to a brilliant screenplay, fantastic performances and a killer soundtrack. 
The magic in any Coen film lies in the fact that their protagonists - while painfully ordinary, bumbling buffoons who get into ridiculous situations - are just so darn likable. They aren’t your typical heroes (or even antiheroes); they have none of that effortless charm or grace that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in film. Yet there’s an endearing quality to these characters that is unmistakable. This is certainly the case for Llewyn, the epitome of the working musician, and played pitch perfectly by the multitalented Oscar Isaac. You can tell that Llewyn loves performing; there’s an obvious, fiery passion that can be seen with every strum of his guitar and every soulful tune out of his lips. But he doesn’t like being asked to do things at a drop of a hat. He has a disdain for the business side of music that prevents him from ever really getting anywhere with his talent. He never settles in any one place, shuffling in and out of his friends’ apartments like he’s playing a game of musical chairs. The traveling musician knows this nomadic lifestyle all too well. It’s a restlessness whose sole remedy is performing. And Llewyn performs as much as he can, although not necessarily to anyone willing to pay heed because he is also slow to trust (having been on the receiving end of some big disappointments). 
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Despite being constantly let down by everyone and everything around him, Llewyn takes up odd gigs singing harmonies for other much more commercially viable artists, even making road trips on the nearly impassable, snowy highways to perform at far-flung venues. But each venture is an exercise in futility, it seems, as Llewyn repeatedly experiences rejection, humiliation and disappointment. Llewyn may be a bit of a curmudgeon, but there’s an interesting tinge of optimism in him that makes its way into each of his conversations and interactions. It’s what forces him to scour the neighborhood for his friend’s lost pet (an adorable ginger cat named Ulysses). When he plays a lovely tune for a prospective music manager, the audience (along with Llewyn) pauses with bated breath at the possibility that he might finally get his lucky break and shoot to stardom. When he is brushed off, Llewyn accepts it with a wry shrug, like a man accustomed to the glass being half empty rather than full. Llewyn has the idea that everyone else around him is more successful than he is, yet when the curtain is pulled back he discovers that everyone is struggling as much as he is, if not more. Yet Llewyn takes no satisfaction from knowing that others are in the same boat as he is. He’s not a hateful miscreant. He’s just a little lost and a little sad, but somehow he gets by, and that’s okay. 
The psychology of the Coens’ characters is always so intricate, yet never comes off as tedious. Everything on screen seems highly intentional, a possible reflection of the amount of thought and care that goes into every minute detail. Best of all, the world feels lived in, and the characters so whole. Their writing is so sharp and so concise that even secondary, supporting characters are fully-formed and endlessly interesting. The audience feels like they know these people, even the ones that are larger-than-life, like John Goodman’s Roland Turner or Garrett Hedlund’s man of few words, Johnny Five. The world that these characters live in is so vibrant and vividly written that they must have burst out of the page and leapt onto the screen. The Coens have managed to capture lightning in a bottle with their knack for finding amusement in the mundane and delighting audiences with their wit and unique brand of whimsy. They are two of the very few filmmakers who can make extremely over-the-top characters feel at home in a painfully ordinary world.

From a visual standpoint, while its cool color scheme was reminiscent of Fargo and A Serious Man, the faint glow that illuminated the faces of the haggard and travel-worn musicians of New York shared a kinship with O Brother Where Are Thou? and The Big Lebowski. Bruno Delbonnel, who was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s cinematographer in the sweeping and dramatic Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, brought a lovely mix of moody lighting and near grungy character to the Coens’ already rich vision. The film’s production design, courtesy of longtime Coen collaborator Jess Gonchor, was also notably brilliant because of how it managed to capture the look and feel of the emerging New York folk scene without coming off as too period. The Coens, who edit all of their own films, did a masterful job balancing lingering, ruminative shots with quick cuts intended to emphasize the energy of musical performance. In one memorable instance involving a collaborative performance from Justin Timberlake, Girls' Adam Driver and Isaac where the trio sings a hilarious ditty about the fear of space flight (a plea entitled “Please Mr. Kennedy”), the Coens’ rapid succession of cuts really livened the scene.
Music is a huge part of any Coen brothers film, and Inside Llewyn Davis certainly does not disappoint. Not only does Oscar Isaac shine in his acoustic performances, but he brought an authenticity to the character that felt very organic. It’s no surprise, Isaac being no stranger to making his own music. He was able to capture the trials and tribulations of the traveling musician because he’s been through them himself. Adding to Isaac’s earnest portrayal of the artist was musical icon T Bone Burnett, who reunited with the Coens to help produce the film’s music. Every Coen film has a fantastic soundtrack, but Inside Llewyn Davis may very well rival O Brother Where Art Thou's as a favorite. The songs aren't there as a gimmick, nor do they serve to fill space. The music completes the film, and in more ways than one, even reveals interesting things about the characters as they perform. It’s very clear that the Coens have an understanding of the rigors of the music business, and they address these issues with as much humor and levity as they can manage. From Llewyn’s crotchety talent manager to John Goodman’s colorful character whose contempt for folk music is hilarious yet oh so relatable, familiar faces of the music industry pop up in the film to illustrate the difficulty of breaking into the biz as well as the kooky creatures who inhabit these bars, clubs and office buildings.  
As the lights dimmed in the dingy Gaslight and the last lines of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” left Llewyn’s lips, there was an overall feeling of wistfulness that revealed to the audience, just in that moment, the things that weighed on Llewyn’s mind. He was a man in mourning, but he was trying not to be so glum about it. The world may sometimes be a cold, harsh and unrelenting place, but some believe that music keeps it turning. Others believe that, well, the world is a cold, harsh and unrelenting place.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

Llewyn Davis’s life is made up of a series of near epiphanies. The scruffy folk singer (played by Drive's Oscar Isaac), and titular character of Joel and Ethan Coen's new film Inside Llewyn Davis, wears a constant state of dishevelment like a second skin, always seeming to be on the verge of a breakthrough, yet managing to elude it due to a benign fear of rejection that is all too familiar to any artist. The Coens paint a portrait of the artist as a young and misanthropic fellow, but they also look upon him with genuine affection, a warmth that isn’t lost to audiences despite the film being set against the backdrop of a harsh New York winter. The duo behind No Country for Old Men and Fargo sing an ode to the working musician, molding Llewyn with a craft and care akin to Catch-22's seemingly hopeless and hapless Yossarian. Featuring the eccentric caricatures that usually appear in most of the Coens' films, Inside Llewyn Davis is a smart, thoughtful and entertaining character study of an ordinary but talented man stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of mistakes and missed connections. It is easily one of the best films of the year thanks to a brilliant screenplay, fantastic performances and a killer soundtrack. 

The magic in any Coen film lies in the fact that their protagonists - while painfully ordinary, bumbling buffoons who get into ridiculous situations - are just so darn likable. They aren’t your typical heroes (or even antiheroes); they have none of that effortless charm or grace that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in film. Yet there’s an endearing quality to these characters that is unmistakable. This is certainly the case for Llewyn, the epitome of the working musician, and played pitch perfectly by the multitalented Oscar Isaac. You can tell that Llewyn loves performing; there’s an obvious, fiery passion that can be seen with every strum of his guitar and every soulful tune out of his lips. But he doesn’t like being asked to do things at a drop of a hat. He has a disdain for the business side of music that prevents him from ever really getting anywhere with his talent. He never settles in any one place, shuffling in and out of his friends’ apartments like he’s playing a game of musical chairs. The traveling musician knows this nomadic lifestyle all too well. It’s a restlessness whose sole remedy is performing. And Llewyn performs as much as he can, although not necessarily to anyone willing to pay heed because he is also slow to trust (having been on the receiving end of some big disappointments). 

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THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
Everything about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic screams excess. And why not? After all, isn’t the man, the myth, the legend - Jay Gatsby - the epitome of too much? Wasn’t Fitzgerald’s novel both a celebration and condemnation of the decadence of the Roaring 20s? At a certain point, however, past the eye-popping colors, digitized lights of New York City, the 3D, and the ridiculously affected acting, things started to get nauseating. Watching The Great Gatsby was the cinematic equivalent of gorging on too many red velvet cupcakes and throwing them up all over the screen. Perhaps that was the point - to emulate Fitzgerald’s own impatience at such frivolity. But Luhrmann’s adaptation was borderline gluttonous in its attempt to throw everything and the kitchen sink into this glitzy, over-the-top production. While this style certainly worked for him in the past, with Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, in Gatsby the result was garish, tasteless and virtually unwatchable, possibly because the va-va-voom visuals weren’t balanced by well-established characters and story. Everything in the film was an assault on the senses, leaving no room for the nuanced satire that made Fitzgerald’s novel timeless.
It was obvious that painstaking effort went into building the sets, costumes and overall design aesthetic of the film. In fact, as far as authenticity goes, the film’s production designers certainly accomplished quite a feat with their attention to detail. However, it was nearly impossible to appreciate all the little things that went into constructing such a cornucopia of design because the camera kept frantically jumping about and zooming around, as if its operator was in some kind of drug-induced stupor. I understand that the intention of this sort of frenzied movement was to have audiences relate to the dizzying rush that our fish-out-of-water narrator Nick Carraway felt being thrown into the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the effect was more irksome than expressionist. The camera never lingered long enough for the audience to appreciate how much work went into staging the elaborate drama, and when it did pause (ever so briefly), all that was left to notice was reduced to computer-generated imagery. The film should have made viewers ache to be at a party like Gatsby’s, but due to the frenetic camera work and the barrage of feathers, flowers and various other froufrou, I couldn’t help but find all of it rather tiresome.
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The film suffered from the lack of an editing eye and could have really benefited from someone - anyone - saying “Hang on. This is getting a bit much.” Was there a need to overdramatize things by making Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway an alcoholic who needed a therapist to help him get over the tragedy of his time in West Egg? Maguire was already narrating the film, so was it really necessary for the lines he “wrote” (supposedly as the author of the book) to appear scrawled on screen during seemingly inopportune moments? The emphasis on style and the lack of a critical editing eye shows how misguided this film was as an adaptation of the book. There was more of a concern about capturing the time period in a fresh and exciting way (and the film sort of did that with its use of interesting, modern music that included everyone from Jay-Z to Florence and the Machine) rather than imparting the message that Fitzgerald tried to say with Gatsby. Most glaringly, it failed at really capturing the emotional roller coaster that was Gatsby's story. 
The film’s audacious style would not have been so distasteful had there been any substance, and there was little to none. Luhrmann expended more time making sure the parties looked luxurious and the costumes were ravishing, which I think actually detracted from the acute criticism Fitzgerald had of the needlessly decadent lifestyles of his New York socialites. There was also barely any time spent lamenting the loss of Gatsby’s soul in his quest to impress Daisy, which was one of the biggest themes in the book, along with the illusory nature of unrequited love. Fitgerald’s commentary on a runaway capitalist culture and its fostering of ill-gotten wealth was also barely seen. Bread crumbs were dropped suggesting Gatsby’s shady practices, but they were almost like afterthoughts rather than incremental implications that the man has gone so far as to stoop to Ponzi schemes in order to win the love of an old flame. The film may have captured the time period and showered its characters in the excess many have come to remember from the book, but it lacked the insight and social criticism that made Fitzgerald’s novel smart and scintillating. 

The film’s script also seem so superfluous next to the forced acting. I felt so emotionally detached from what was going on onscreen and I had no motivation to root for any of the characters to get their just desserts. The performances in the film made things worse because they were so over-the-top, it was like watching a soap on Telemundo (no offense to the lovely actors at Telemundo, of course). Carey Mulligan’s breathy line delivery was more grating than endearing, and Maguire’s Nick Carraway gave me flashbacks of that godawful song-and-dance number in Spider-Man 3. Maguire fit the profile of the outsider Carraway, but I could not stand his narration. It seemed as though when he was reading his lines, he was aware of their profundity, yet was determined to deliver them in a way that emphasized them even more, which was just unnecessary. Even Joel Edgerton gave such a strange, contrived version of peacock Tom Buchanan that it made me forget his far superior acting in the grossly underrated Warrior. Overall, there was a mawkishness to the whole film that really turned me off. It’s a damn shame, too, because Leonardo DiCaprio was Jay Gatsby. From his perfectly coiffed blond hair to his glittering gaze that made you feel like you were the only person in the world who mattered, to his gregarious but simultaneously secretive smile that reeled everyone in…DiCaprio looked and acted the part of a man who grew up with too little so he always strived for too much. Unfortunately, everyone else was so hilariously mediocre around him that it was almost like watching Justin Timberlake performing with N SYNC. You just know the guy is better than and pretty much carrying the rest of the ensemble. 

To Lurhmann’s credit, he does point out (as the book does) that Daisy is nothing but a prize to be won (to borrow a line from Disney’s Aladdin) for the dashing Gatsby and the arrogant Tom. In the scene when both men are vying for her, she actually does not matter and is instead a finish line for either one to cross. For Gatsby, having Daisy was never going to be enough, even though she was the one who spurred him to action and gave him ambition. For Tom, having Daisy return to him was about asserting his dominance over something he thought he already plucked and claimed when he married her (the irony being that marriage meant nothing to the serial adulterer). I just wish that more of this insightful character commentary from the book made it into the film.
Honestly, if this film weren’t set in the 20s and there wasn’t such a pressure to recreate the flapper fashion and the rest of the prohibition-era period, it could have worked. There could have been more of a focus on the characters rather than all the superficial stuff that Lurhmann thought would appeal to the moviegoing generation of today. I would’ve been interested in watching a Gatsby set in the modern age, amid social networks, snapchat and smartphones, much like what Luhrmann did with Romeo & Juliet. It certainly would have been more thought-provoking than this eyesore of a film. While Gatsby captured the decadence of the roaring 20s, it lacked the derisive undertones that made the book so interesting.  
The Great Gatsby is kind of a hot mess. On the one hand that’s okay, because it does encapsulate how Fitzgerald got disillusioned by the jazz age. On the other hand, it’s a shame, because the film had such potential to be great but, like Gatsby, got caught up in trying to do too much that it forgot about the simple things that mattered. Overall, while there ain’t no party like a Gatsby party, if Baz Luhrmann is in charge of it, I’d rather stay home.

THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

Everything about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic screams excess. And why not? After all, isn’t the man, the myth, the legend - Jay Gatsby - the epitome of too much? Wasn’t Fitzgerald’s novel both a celebration and condemnation of the decadence of the Roaring 20s? At a certain point, however, past the eye-popping colors, digitized lights of New York City, the 3D, and the ridiculously affected acting, things started to get nauseating. Watching The Great Gatsby was the cinematic equivalent of gorging on too many red velvet cupcakes and throwing them up all over the screen. Perhaps that was the point - to emulate Fitzgerald’s own impatience at such frivolity. But Luhrmann’s adaptation was borderline gluttonous in its attempt to throw everything and the kitchen sink into this glitzy, over-the-top production. While this style certainly worked for him in the past, with Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, in Gatsby the result was garish, tasteless and virtually unwatchable, possibly because the va-va-voom visuals weren’t balanced by well-established characters and story. Everything in the film was an assault on the senses, leaving no room for the nuanced satire that made Fitzgerald’s novel timeless.

It was obvious that painstaking effort went into building the sets, costumes and overall design aesthetic of the film. In fact, as far as authenticity goes, the film’s production designers certainly accomplished quite a feat with their attention to detail. However, it was nearly impossible to appreciate all the little things that went into constructing such a cornucopia of design because the camera kept frantically jumping about and zooming around, as if its operator was in some kind of drug-induced stupor. I understand that the intention of this sort of frenzied movement was to have audiences relate to the dizzying rush that our fish-out-of-water narrator Nick Carraway felt being thrown into the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the effect was more irksome than expressionist. The camera never lingered long enough for the audience to appreciate how much work went into staging the elaborate drama, and when it did pause (ever so briefly), all that was left to notice was reduced to computer-generated imagery. The film should have made viewers ache to be at a party like Gatsby’s, but due to the frenetic camera work and the barrage of feathers, flowers and various other froufrou, I couldn’t help but find all of it rather tiresome.

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Check out the brand new trailer for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the newest effort from the Coen brothers, which follows a folk musician as he connects with people from his past while also trying to break into the music scene. Oscar Isaac plays the titular character and he reunites with Drive co-star Carey Mulligan. Also rounding out the cast, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake and Girls' Adam Driver.