by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences saw Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo was coming off a lengthy directing streak with 2010’s True Grit, a stunning remake of a John Wayne western that earned several Oscar nominations and almost universal acclaim from critics. After taking a small break and penning the screenplay for director Michael Hoffman’s 2012 film Gambit, the Coen’s return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which easily ranks as some of their best and moodiest work since No Country for Old Men. Comprised of washed-out cinematography, crackling dialogue, immaculate performances, and the Coen’s distinct brand of humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful period dramedy—one that explores the burning drive and stinging disappointment that many starving artists face on a daily basis. Though rich with eye-grabbing early 1960s set design and frigid atmospherics, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a complex character study. It allows us to voyeuristically glimpse inside the chilly world of a self-absorbed jerk as he sulks through New York City’s Greenwich Village in search of his big break and a couch to lay his weary head upon. The fact that we actually mildly root for Mr. Davis to make it as a folk singer is a testament to Oscar Isaac, who gives an extraordinary performance that is ripe with frustration, heartbreak, sarcasm, and exhaustion.
Inside Llewyn Davis picks up in 1961, with small-time Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) homeless and broke. In between gigs at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn still nurses wounds from his break-up with his singing partner, Mike, who recently committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Frustrated that his new solo album isn’t selling, Llewyn is forced to shack up on the couches of close friends, some of which have rocky relationships with the bitter musician. One of these close friends is Jean Berkey (played by Carey Mulligan), the wife of Llewyn’s friend and fellow-musician Jim (played by Justin Timberlake), who turns out to be pregnant after a one-night stand with Llewyn. In one final attempt to make it big, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago with rebel beat-poet Johnny Five (played by Garrett Hedlund) and cranky jazz musician Roland Turner (played by John Goodman) in the hopes of auditioning for famed producer Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). Along the way, Llewyn is forced to take care of an orange tabby cat that managed to get loose from an apartment that Llewyn was staying at. To make things worse, Llewyn learns another devastating secret about a past lover who moved to Akron.
While the Coen’s lighten the mood with doses of their eccentric humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a morose work of art that lingers on Llewyn’s testy attitude and self-inflicted turmoil. He scurries around New York City in the middle of winter, bundled up in a corduroy blazer and scarf, seeking out friends and family members in the hopes that they may lend him some money or give him shelter from the blustery cold. He is constantly taking verbal beatings from Jean, who absolutely detests him, but he does nothing to soften her blows. She calls him a loser and demands that he arranges for an abortion, and he retorts by calling her a conformist and rolling his eyes. When he isn’t busy pushing his friends away or refusing a winter coat from his manager, Llewyn is busy being combative with his sister and refusing to visit his sickly father. Despite the fact that he basically invites many of his problems, Isaac still manages to convey a deep-rooted pain that is visible in both Llewyn’s sleepy eyes and the aching folk songs that he cathartically belts out. You consistently get the impression that if Llewyn could just have one good thing happen, it might ease some of the tension that he carries with him. This is why you can overlook his long list of flaws and actually root for the guy.
Complimenting Isaac’s ornery and nomadic turn as Llewyn are equally complex performances from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and even Garrett Hedlund. Mulligan is a snippy ball of fury as Jean, who never misses an opportunity to call Llewyn an “asshole” for getting her pregnant. Watching the two butt heads is hilarious and exasperating, especially since Llewyn keeps lighting her short fuse. Justin Timberlake gives another surprising turn as Jim, Jean’s eager-to-help husband who does everything he can for Llewyn. Timberlake’s shining moment comes when he sings a song with Isaac and co-star Adam Driver called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a cutesy novelty track that will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the movie. Coen regular John Goodman is a scene-stealer as the baritone jazz musician Roland Turner, who scoffs at the music Llewyn makes and the cat that he carries around with him. There is a particularly disturbing scene that reveals that the rotund Roland has some fierce demons of his own. Garrett Hedlund is a man of mystery as Johnny Five, a greaser-like beat-poet who answers in grunts, growls, and one-word responses. Watching Llewyn attempt to make small talk with him is spectacularly awkward, especially when he denies Llewyn a cigarette by claiming he is out, only to light one up in front of the broke folk singer just moments later.
In true Coen fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis comes equipped with a must-hear folk rock soundtrack that warms the film’s zero-degree chill considerably. Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and several other colorful characters lend their musical talents to the soundtrack; delivering heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that can really make a room hush up and take notice. The darling of the film is undoubtedly the charming novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that will certainly be included in the Best Song category at the Oscar’s. Other standouts include Isaac’s rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” which he strums out for an unimpressed Bud Grossman, Isaac’s heart-and-soul final performance of “Fare Thee Well,” and a sweet little number by Stark Sands called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” In addition to the emotional folk soundtrack, the film is photographed in a dreamy, washed out manner that makes this week-in-the-life tale resemble a collection of forgotten polaroids that have been hiding in your attic since 1961. Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis is a soulful tune that won’t tickle everyone’s eardrums, but if you’re a fan of folk music or if you just can’t resist a morose Coen comedy, then you need to high tail it to the local theater and take a walk with this shaggy folk singer. It’s an American masterpiece that is downright impossible to forget.
by Steve Habrat
George Romero has publicly complained about Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of his 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead, griping that the filmmakers never really asked for his permission. I wonder if he has seen Steve Miner’s 2008 remake of Day of the Dead, which knocks off Snyder’s Dawn almost every chance it gets while featuring an embarrassing script and zero traces of social commentary, which is what Romero is known for. As brain dead as one of its roaring zombies, Day of the Dead makes a few nods to the original 1985 Romero film, mostly in the character’s names, but the one positive is that it doesn’t attempt to regurgitate the original’s plot frame by frame. Miner basically makes the film look like a heavy metal music video with sets that look like leftovers from the first Resident Evil, flashy cut scenes, shaky camera work, and an all too brief run time. Making matters worse, Miner fills the film with a handful of crappy C-list actors who can’t find work in A-list films and he almost successfully turns the career of Ving Rhames into a rotten joke.
When a strange flu-like virus hits a small Colorado town, the army rushes in to quarantine those who are sick. The quarantine is lead by Captain Rhodes (Played by Ving Rhames, who showed up in Snyder’s Dawn remake), Corporal Sarah Bowman (Played by Mena Suvari), Private Bud Crain (Played by Stark Sands), and Private Salazar (Played by Nick Cannon). Soon, the infection begins taking a drastic turn as those who are infected begin seizing up and bloody wounds start showing up on their faces. After the strange frozen state, the infected begin waking up and turning into acrobatic zombies who can crawl on ceilings, walls, and sprint around like marathon runners. Soon, Rhodes, Sarah, Bud, and Salazar have to locate Sarah’s brother Trevor (Played by Michael Welch) and his girlfriend Nina (Played by AnnaLynne McCord), and uncover what is causing the citizens to turn into flesh hungry cannibals.
Day of the Dead has so many poorly conceived moments; you have to wonder if anyone was paying attention while making it. Screenwriter Jeffery Reddick borrows the aspect that the zombies are much more aware from Romero’s original, but the film applies it in the worst ways imaginable. The zombies posses the ability to leap around at blinding speed, crawl up walls, and leap from floor to ceiling in the blink of an eye. Yet in one scene, Trevor and Nina are fleeing an overrun hospital and find themselves pursued by a hoard of zombies. Trevor and Nina begin pushing wheelchairs, gurneys, and various medical equipment into the middle of the hall to stall their attackers and the zombies keep tripping and falling over it. You would think that zombies that are capable of crawling around like Spider-Man could figure out a way around some debris pushed into their way. Apparently, no one stopped to ponder this flub. Many other questions arise, like why the zombies skin begins to instantly rot away, why the zombies are super zombies, and why are those so aware? Furthermore, why are only some super zombies and others are not?
Day of the Dead also makes the blunder of shedding light on what caused the zombie outbreak and not leaving it a mystery. Part of the fun of the Romero originals is the not knowing where the virus came from. Day of the Dead concludes with some half-assed explanations that are more preposterous than practical. As was pointed out recently by film critic Jason Zinoman in his book Shock Value, the scariest movies lack a clear explanation of the horror that is occurring. Since Reddick and Miner are doing a remake of a Romero film, you would have thought one or the other would have said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t add the explanation!” At times, the characters discuss an airborne virus and that some people have a natural immunity to it. I suspect that Miner and Reddick watched Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror a few times before they began making this film, as there are more than a handful of striking similarities.
If the film itself isn’t bad enough, Miner’s cast makes things even more excruciating. The lowest point of the film is the inclusion of Nick Cannon, who tries to play a tough guy bully but is the furthest thing from any of those things. He walks around dual wielding 9mms and erupting with rancid one-liners that leave you hoping that his character bites the dust early on. Spoiler Alert: he doesn’t. Suvari’s Sarah is one note and dry, putting no distinctive spin on the tough-as-nails heroine commando. Michael Welch and AnnaLynne McCord as Trevor and Nina are just stereotypical hornball teenagers, Nina only included to add some sex appeal to the film. They are also apparently very skilled at using automatic weapons, something the town’s gun shop is heavily stocked with. There is also the addition of radio D.J. Paul (Played by Ian McNeice), who is an overweight stoner with no purpose in the film whatsoever. Only Rhames and Sands, as Captain Rhodes and Bud, are the high points, giving minor depth to their pale outlines of characters. As hard as they try, they couldn’t save this shitshow.
While watching Day of the Dead 2008, it’s clear as, well, day why the film was straight to DVD. At a skimpy eighty some minutes, the film is simultaneously too long and too short. The film can’t muster up any anticipation or tension. Things just start happening and you just won’t care at all. It fails to produce any scares and Miner can’t even seem to get the jump scare moments right. The effects reek of a limited budget and the make-up on the ghouls doesn’t even compare to what Tom Savini did in 1985. So determined to ride the wave of the zombie craze that was stirred up by 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead ’04, and Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead is the lame poser of the group not to mention poorly timed with its release. For someone who is a diehard fan of this stuff like myself, heed my advice and just watch the Romero original instead of exposing yourself to this garbage. Day of the Dead ’08 should have only seen the light of day as it was being discarded into the garbage dump.
Day of the Dead 2008 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.