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Marital Fidelity Creaks in Powerfully-Acted ‘WILDLIFE’

Carey Mulligan has been confidently constructing a tasteful resume since her auspicious breakout in 2009’s An Education. She’s worked alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and under the lenses of the great Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen. But never has her light shined brighter than as an unfaithful wife in Paul Dano’s always low-broiling, sometimes crushing debut Wildlife. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘SUFFRAGETTE’

We have an inherent tendency to want to give the benefit of the doubt to a piece of art with “good intentions”. In the case of Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s English women rights docudrama, the well-meaning intention is there in spades but the product itself is bungled and bandaged, thick with platitudes and disastrously short on emotion. For a feature documenting a major historical event that saw children torn from the arms of their mothers, clumps of activists jailed and tortured for sticking to their egalitarian beliefs and women brutalized for expressing their desire to be able to vote alongside the men, Suffragette is almost appallingly, unforgivably devoid of organic impact. Read More

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Out in Theaters: FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

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A nobleman, a commoner and a soldier walk into a bar. There sits a property-owning, curly mopped brunette beauty. Which man does she choose to marry? Such is the premise of Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 romance novel; a 512-page amorous yarn, turned into a dramaturgical 107-page script, turned into a 119-minute film. In simplifying the story, good sense is tangled in expedited character arcs and though less plodding than many coattail and gown costume dramas, Far From the Madding Crowd is at best a handsomely photographed venture back in time and at worst a perfunctory, sloppily told bore.

As hot as an exposed ankle in 1870, Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) is a feminist champion amongst old-fashion cods. Her free-wheeling ways are as accented as Beast’s Belle, which we see manifested in her willingness to hop in the slop and give lambs a good spanking to get a move on. “My lord, but what about your dress?” When she shoots down marriage proposal numero dos, you can almost hear the townswomen tittering, “Can you believe she didn’t marry that man?” Titter, titter.

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But let’s back up in time. Before Bathsheba becomes a certified landowner and town-wide hot topic, she was naught but a lowly farm girl, her only holdings being her education and her sharp wit. Neighbor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), upon retrieving her red scarf from the woods – Oh! Red! In June! How scandalous! – wastes little time in trying to secure a marriage. It’s your average “boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, boy’s dog chase his sheep off cliff, boy loses farm, girl inherits farm, boy works at farm” saga.

English costume romances such as these thrive on their performances and none here disappoint. Mulligan offers up some of her finest work – a nuanced and lively portrait of a woman ahead of her time. Her inner workings are like a skeleton watch; her eyebrows flock hither and thither with each dutifully charged enunciation; her faint smile is a beguiling jewel. And magical though her work may be, it doesn’t prove enough to camouflage the bigger issues at play.

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Take for instance Bathsheba’s romance with Mr. Oak – who might I say looks confusingly like a hot Charlie Kelly. Schoenaerts displays fierce subtly in his quiet, complacent role as Mr. Oak and in his own right is excellent as well but his chemistry with Mulligan is cursory at best. Considering that the weight of the film rests squarely on our investment in Mr. Oak and  Bathsheba’s brewing romance, the fact that their entanglement is barely lukewarm makes everything else feel a touch soggy, soiled and businesslike. They have kind of a Luke ‘n’ Leia thing going on where you dread having to watch them kiss. For a romance, that’s a pretty huge problem.

Furthermore, they’re both kind of boring characters who like each other because the other one is equally boring. Everyone’s drinkin’ and dancin’ at the wedding? Best tend to heaps of hay!

No matter how fancifully dressed up it is – and believe me, from costumes to sets to cinematography, Far From the Madding Crowd is an appropriately distinguished visual feast – it cannot escape the Hollywood romance formula wherein we’re supposed to root for the centerpiece love story because they’re the sexy stars of the film and the sexy stars of the film are supposed to do it by the end. There’s certainly consolidation points earned for its free-spirited feminist lead – in addition to Mulligan’s apt performance – but that’s not enough of a cover job to disguise its disappointingly flat – and sometimes seriously head-scratching – narrative turns.

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The most pronounced of which comes in the form of the character Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and his perplexing motivations. They prove particularly problematic in that his arc only makes sense if we regard him as a madman. His steadfast abandonment of former love Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) works in and of itself but not in the context of his later developments with Bathsheba. Relationships like this may thrive on the page with much more time and care dedicated to them but on the screen, they just don’t make much sense at all old boy. 

Vinterburg delivered a picture of staggering depth with The Hunt and unfortunately his vibrantly nuanced tendencies have all but disappeared here, like a children hiding beneath his mother’s dress. Though there’s much to like in Far From the Madding Crowd – especially Michael Sheen, props to Michael Sheen – there’s little to love.

C+

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Out in Theaters: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

“Inside Llewyn Davis’
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands
Drama, Music
105 Mins
R
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“Can anything be both meaningful and aimless?” Joel and Ethan Coen ask in their latest film. Taking it from Llewyn Davis, the man and movie both, it appears so. But such is the nature of art. A masterpiece isn’t planned, nor is it something that can necessarily be blueprinted. Half the meaning of art is in the legwork itself; the getting there of it all. For within art as self-expression, there is no structure, no path towards inspiration, and no guarantee of success, even for your best work. And yet, to only give yourself half-heartedly to a craft that only stands a snowball’s chance in hell of finding an audience is self-defeating. Folk music, as we see here, isn’t just about singing songs, it’s the burden of searching for meaning, a modus operandi that looks a lot like vagrancy; an outré way of existing. Art is no hobby, Inside Llewyn Davis cries, it’s a lifestyle, and a tiring one at that.

As Llewyn Davis tries with fleeting enthusiasm to give his folk-sung artistry a last go around the Greenwich folk scene, he learns that art and commercialism could not be further polarized (the iPhone hadn’t been invented just yet). In an ironically staged twist of Coen Bros symmetry, this film, which is as far left of commercial as can be, is a piece of high art. As such, it’ll likely be shuffled away from the mainstream, bolstered only by Coen enthusiast’s enduring adoration, near-universal critical acclaim, and a dollop of love from the awards circuits. But though it’s reach may be limited, it is powerful. And as I’ve tried to preach in movie-related writings, it’s a film best served with a healthy serving of reflection, to be sought out by those who seek a deeper relationship with the films they watch.

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Inside Llewyn Davis
is a mood piece if there ever was any, rich with soulful folk ballads, colorful characters, and stripped of the usual framework that we call a story. As a microcosm of an era and a subculture, Davis, with his caustic demeanor, is the last man you would expect to lead a story. But for all his many faults, he lives and breathes folk music. His battered existence is the stuff straight from a hokum Bob Dylan lyric. What better subject for a film about a music genre that has by and large represented lost souls and losing investments than a gruff man fading from relevance before he was ever close to it in the first place?

Lumbering around aimless, Davis suffers from destiny lost. He’s recovering from the death of his best friend and musical partner and coming to the harsh acceptance that life has chewed him up, spit him out, and wants no further taste of him. But that’s hardly an excuse for such reprehensible behavior. Especially in front of the ladies!

Muses for Davis come and go with the change of the seasons and, through the power of suggestion and the here-again-there-again nature of Davis, we’re led to believe that he’s notorious for being loose with the ladies. Hell, he’s even slept with his best friend’s wife. But for all the poontang he reaps around town, he’s about as popular with any given lady after a sexual tryst as the music he sings. Doling out abortion money like its a hobby, Davis is the breed of sad, sorrowful ladies man who’s lifestyle is unbefitting of love. There’s only room for one love in his life and that’s his music, however mistreated it seems to be by the rest of the world.

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When it comes to telling this tale of harmonious woe, the Coens turn the formula on its head. Rather than meeting a grumbling stick-in-the-mud who then spins his life around, when we meet Davis, he seems like a pretty decent guy. However, the more time we spent with him, the more we see him as an egocentric bastard, using up people’s goodwill and spitting them out like they were nothing to him. But it probably comes with the fact that he

Llewyn’s didactic approach to music has him looking down his nose at his peers – all of which, he has assured himself, are hacks or sell outs – and yet going nowhere fast for it. In such, he’s the Holden Caulfield of folk (and I guess that makes them “phonies”). But Davis is no troubled teenager. He’s a calloused man, hardened by disappointed, burdened with grief and buried in sorrow. The only thing that keeps him ticking is his geetar and his oh so lovely vocal cords. But each time Llewyn caws out a tune, coy as it may be, he is alive. Then, he retreats into something the broken man we know. As lively and rich as his soulful ballads are, he has become a shell. Without his tunes, I’m afraid there is nothing else left in this Oscar the Grouch.

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After reading an early draft of the script, the Coens decided they needed more “tradition” in it and so we have Ulysses the cat. Davis’ moral compass is represented by this fat-faced, orange tabby cat who we meet in the opening shot of the film. Ulysses, just as much as Davis, guides us through this week-long saunter. As the film tracks the cat’s journey, we come to new conclusions about the mop-headed Llewyn, conclusions which will ultimately disappoint us and leave Davis heavy with shame.

Teeming with atmosphere, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the feel of grayness, that hard to swallow pill of depression. Even though it’s quite beautiful, Inside Llewyn Davis feels ugly. You can smell the stink of the smoke on your skin, and the nip of the chilly air when Davis walks into the New York streets sans proper winter wear. We shutter when he steps in a puddle, we empathize when he’s told, “I don’t see any money in it” as if that’s all that really matters.

Wet, downtrodden cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel helps to inform a New York that’s just as beat up as Davis himself. Even the most upbeat song of the film, sung to absolute perfection by Justin Timberlake‘s Jim and Adam Driver‘s Al Cody, is a plea against America’s fear of the uncertainty – the next battle against the Ruskos in a blossoming Cold War. That song, so aptly titled Please Mr. Kennedy is perfectly symbolic for the whole feature – and one of the most fun scens in all of 2013. It’s commercial crud and yet, it’s the one song you’ll be singing after the film wraps for days (Puh-puh-puh-please…). If only the whole movie had this upbeat sensibility, humor, and Driver’s timely baritone. But that’s a different movie entirely.  

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And yet there are a couple chunks to it that may as well be flown in from other films. The car scene with John Goodman seems like its from another movie entirely and, while propelling Llewyn to a climatic meeting with fate, seems a touch bloated for what we get out of it.

Blemishes and all, Inside Llewyn Davis is that rare movie that only the Coens could pull off. Backed by a killer soundtrack, a gloomy visual landscape, and a star-making performance from lead Oscar Isaac, it may be a film reserved for the minority but those lucky few sure will cherish it.

A-

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New Trailer for Coen Brother's INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

A new trailer has landed for the Coen brother’s film Inside Llewen Davis,a drama focusing on the ailing career of folk-singer Llewen Davis (played by Oscar Isaac who also stared in 2011’s Drive and 2008’s Body of Lies) in the middle of the 1960’s pre-Dylan New York music scene.  Inspired in mood by the life of Dave Von Ronk and his notion that this scene was dominated by acts from all over the US to the chagrin of New York native musicians, this new trailer shows Davis’s career, life, and relationships disintegrating as he grasps at straws offered from people still willing to give him a shot. Passed over, neglected and berated at every step of this 3-minute trailer, Llewen remains unvanquished and, with the help of the heartfelt music we’re meant to assume is off Llewen’s titular album, the prospect of hope for the folk singer seems less of impossible than in previous trailers.

Llewen has yet to respond adequately in these trailers to the near constant criticism he gets for his failures from his already-taken and newly-pregnant paramour Jean (Carey Mulligan), other musicians, and various acquaintances. However, this trailer has less barbs directed at him and a quicker pacing. Llewen’s brooding looks are less hopeless then previously shown, and beats shown in previous trailers are fleshed out with more of Llewen’s persistence in the grit in the face of his detractors. The scenes of him traveling what we’re given to understand by sequence is away are grouped closer together and coincide with swells in the soundtrack (an old folk song produced by T-Bone Burnett of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame along with Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons), making it seem less like a retreat and more of a stand taken against the growing clouds over Llewen’s future. Unlike in previous trailers, Llewen’s charisma is easier to spot, and Isaac’s performance is put center stage instead of just setting the scene. In this trailer, he seems actually likable, which is saying something.

The film, which won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is debuting on December 6th during the bulk of Oscar season releases. Although not as grave as the Coen’s previous couple of films, the personal tragedy of the artist unable to compromise for personal success that the film revolves around is just as serious and just as moving. At turns funny, downtrodden and uncertainly hopeful, this movie has a lot going for it, both for the Coen brother’s fans and for the upcoming academy awards.

To see the IMDB exclusive trailer, click here.

Inside Llewen Davis is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake. It Hits theaters December 6th, 2013.

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