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Coens Evoke NY Folk Scene; Hanks Battles Pirates: Movies

'Inside Lleywn Davis'
Oscar Isaac, from left, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as 1960s folk-singers in "Inside Llewyn Davis." The film is written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen ("The Big Lebowski"). Photographer: Alison Rosa/CBS Films via Bloomberg

Oct. 1 (Bloomberg) -- The Coen Brothers’ remarkable “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a conjuring act of near-magical conviction, an ode to the artistic spirit that’s as uncompromising as the troubled genius it chronicles.

Loosely based on folksinger Dave Van Ronk’s 2005 memoir, this gem summons an era on the precipice: the pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s.

The movie, which won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, has Oscar Isaac’s fully realized central performance, a cleverly cast big-name ensemble and a score of folk standards expertly curated by T. Bone Burnett.

Davis is devoted to interpreting authentic Americana, disdaining the “Tom Dooley” polish that might provide rent or a winter coat.

Sporting a corduroy jacket on wintry West Village streets -- a motif inspired by the famous album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” -- Davis wanders from one punishing, often comic vignette to another.

Crashing on couches, gigging for minuscule audiences and nursing a grief that’s only gradually explained, Davis encounters a well-meaning yet hilariously patronizing set of Upper West Side intellectuals and a husband and wife singing duo (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), half of which he’s gotten pregnant.

Road Trip

Best of all, though, is a road-trip sequence, typical of Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeous cinematography, in which Davis hitches a ride with an effete, disdainful jazz musician (John Goodman channeling Doc Pomus) and his brooding beat-poet “valet” (Garrett Hedlund).

Poking his passenger with a silver-topped cane and railing against folk’s simplicity (“I thought you said you were a musician?”), Goodman’s ailing bebopper is a haunting comic creation, with hints of Huck Finn’s regal con artists and jazz’s legacy of needle-scarred detritus.

He is, the Coens might be saying, what happens to artists who outlive their eras.

Llewyn Davis can’t get away from him fast enough.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” from CBS Films, was reviewed at the New York Film Festival and will open in theaters in December. Rating: ***** (Evans)

‘Captain Phillips’

Who could fail to be impressed by “Captain Phillips” -- by the seriousness that its director, Paul Greengrass, and its star, Tom Hanks, bring to this oceangoing thriller, by the triumphantly met challenge of filming at sea, by the sheer magnitude?

Whether you like the movie -- which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Friday evening -- is almost irrelevant. It gets going so fast, and with such force, that there’s too much else to think about.

The picture recounts a 2009 incident in which Somali pirates boarded a cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. When their ransom plan started to crumble, they took off with the captain.

In a kind of naval “Dog Day Afternoon,” they were soon surrounded by giant American warships and negotiating desperately, with only one card -- their hostage -- to play.

Billy Ray’s script is based on Captain Richard Phillips’s own account but expands on it in a crucial way: It takes us into Somalia to see the pirates being recruited.

Without sentimentalizing them, the film shows you how poor and hope-deprived they are, and gives you an idea of what this opportunity to earn some money (most of it will go to their bosses) and prove their manhood means to them.

Phillips can see that they’re little more than boys, and the strength and humanity of Hanks’s performance lies in the way his bearing registers his horror at what’s happening to them as well as to him.

Henry Jackman’s dissonant score shows that a composer can heighten the excitement and deepen the tension of a thriller without pounding the audience to a pulp.

The movie ends with a swell of emotion; it’s earned. The festival audience gave it a standing ovation.

“Captain Phillips,” from Columbia Pictures, opens across the U.S. on Oct. 11. Rating: ****1/2 (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on Broadway and Patrick Cole on philanthropy.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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