1 The Coen brothers’ bleak, bittersweet comedy of frustration, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is surprisingly empathetic toward its embattled title character, an early 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer. The flat-broke, homeless troubadour (Oscar Isaac) endures an avalanche of abuse, most of it self-inflicted. But you cannot watch the Coens’ rapt, uninterrupted takes of Isaac’s sublime musical interludes and not be moved. “Inside Llewyn Davis” should retire the old charge that the Coens are misanthropes who thrill at belittling humanity. This may be their most nearly perfect film.
2 As live as the lads get on record without the screaming fans getting in the way, the Beatles’ “On Air: Live at the BBC, Vol. 2” picks up where a 1994 BBC archive-mining operation left off and again strikes gold. It features 10 cover songs from the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, plus extra-feisty versions of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me to You,” “Money” and other staples from the band’s touring era (1962-65). It’s available as a two-disc set or paired with a remastered and revised version of “Vol. 1.”
3 “Paul Chesley: A Photographic Voyage” celebrates 40 years of photography by the Red Wing native —many of those years spent shooting for National Geographic. This coffee-table book collects more than 300 color images from exotic locales. These are not action shots of war, or images from busy urban life, but mostly are photos that look as though they could have been shot anytime in the past 100 years: young monks in Cambodia, American Indian women herding sheep in Arizona, bicyclists in Hanoi, mountains in the snow. So beautiful.
5 Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman 2” communicates an almost childlike delight in big, silly, naughty jokes. Having conquered the San Diego TV news market in the 1970s, then lost it all through hubris, obtuse news reader Ron Burgundy is recruited to help fill time in a new, 1980s concept: a 24-hour news channel. The erratic sketch-comedy pacing and the random nature of often haphazard gags can be disconcerting. But the film’s strong suit is its unhinged, anything-for-a-laugh audacity.
4 In a slip of a play called “The Receptionist,” Sally Wingert creates a wonderfully ordinary character caught in extraordinary circumstances. She answers phones and runs the front desk at a nondescript business, seemingly perfectly content pursuing small talk and small matters in her life. But there is evil lurking within our everyday banality. This well-observed character study is loaded with a grim denouement that reminds us how fragile we are in this big, bad world. www.darkstormy.org.
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