See ThisInside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac has an unfortunate habit of being the best thing in bad movies (W.E., Won't Back Down, The Bourne Legacy), so I'm thrilled to say that he's finally the best thing in a great one.
As Llewyn Davis, perhaps the most talented – and most unsuccessful – folk singer in New York, Isaac is a rumpled, miserable mess. He doesn't particularly like people, but he's forced to prevail upon them constantly, staying at one couple’s apartment (and losing their cat), begging other friends for a night on their couch or a few bucks. Every time he seems on the verge of progress, he sabotages it with his air of gloom and that ungoverned tongue. When Llewyn gets punched in the face, you know he's earned it.
And yet, there's something endearing about the rotten bum. Start with Isaac's voice, it's rich and soulful, beautifully controlled and perfectly evocative of the period that brought us Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell. Then there's his performance as the quintessential frustrated artist, someone who both is and isn't of this milieu. He's our window into this crazy business, yet just as perplexed by as it as we are.
While friends like perpetually enraged Jean (Carey Mulligan), with whom Llewyn has some history, and her singing partner-husband Jim (Justin Timberlake, there for two songs, then gone) find themselves on a slow path to success, Llewyn comes bewilderingly close. But will he ever get there?
To be honest, I'm not sure filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen care if Llewyn hits it big or not. This black comedy of theirs is more about pure artistic expression, the love of craft for its own sake. But they don't neglect the humor, particularly whenever Mulligan is on screen, spitting fire at Llewyn. Timberlake, brief though his time is in the film, also hits a few funny notes (try to keep a straight face as they sing “Please, Mr. Kennedy.") Speaking of which, the soundtrack is glorious, worth it even if you never give the film a try. But I hope you will.
– Alynda Wheat
But Skip ThisTwice Born
Penélope Cruz stars as Gemma, a beautiful Italian who falls, rather improbably, for American photographer Diego (Emile Hirsch) while on a trip to Sarajevo. I say improbably, not because Diego is several years younger than Gemma, but because he's a manic, heroin-addicted dork, though not without his charms. Soon, they're married, but once it becomes clear that Gemma will never be able to have his baby, the love begins to fray.
A return to Sarajevo as the Bosnian War explodes doesn't go as Gemma expects, but leaves her with lifelong scars and a son, Pietro (Pietro Castellitto). Twice Born is told in flashback, when Gemma takes Pietro back to the country of his birth, only to uncover more secrets. The melodrama never seems particularly convincing, though, from Diego and Gemma's wild adoration to the cruel and violent twists the film takes from there. Even as a Cruz fan, I'd suggest sitting this one out.
And ThisOut of the Furnace
In high spirits this holiday season? Well have we got the cure for you! Out of the Furnace is a relentlessly brutal, all-bad-news-all-the time drama set in the nearly extinguished world of the industrial working class living on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Even before the story starts focusing on a mountain-based bare-knuckle fighting meth-dealing ring, things are bleak for the brothers Baze, played with high-minded somberness by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck. There are several deaths, a mountain of debt, a jail sentence, and everyone is either unemployed or bordering on the brink of it. And that’s when things get bruised and bloody. (Indeed Affleck's baby face spends much of the movie the color of an overripe eggplant.)
Most of the mayhem comes courtesy of a scene-stealing Woody Harrelson, playing his most despicable homicidal maniac since Natural Born Killers' Mickey. He's one of several high-wattage players getting in on Furnace's grime: Willem Dafoe plays a fading bookie, while Forest Whitaker is noble jumble of a cop in a loveless relationship with Bale's former paramour, played by Zoë Saldana.
With its billowing plumes of factory smoke and gloriously smudgy mid-century homes, the movie is beautiful to look at. But all that handsomeness leaves one with the feeling that Out of the Furnace is a film more to be admired than enjoyed. The attempts by first-class actors to connect to these hardscrabble hard cases are similarly admirable and touching. But as it trudges toward its inevitably doom-laden conclusion, it is impossible to truly care about folks when you know there isn't a shred of hope for them. Let's face it: No one in this movie ever stood a chance.
– Oliver Jones