Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2013). For all the recreation of the NYC folk scene in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t much concerned with folk music. The Coens don’t show a lot of interest in that scene, other than as a place to insert the titular Davis. It’s not a bad move … Oscar Isaac is so good as Davis, we’re happy to spend the entire movie with him. The Coens don’t show contempt for folk music … when Davis says he hates folk music, we understand his feelings are more about his own inability to fit in than they are about the limitations of folk. But neither do they elevate folk music; this is not a nostalgic paean to the good old days before Dylan went electric. It’s a story about the inside of Llewyn Davis, who happens to be a folk singer. Having said all of this, Isaac’s musical performances in the movie are a crucial aspect in the presentation of his character, and Isaac is as strong when he is singing as he is in the other parts of his role. He (and the Coens, who also wrote the script) walk a fine line in making Davis just on the good side of unlikable, so that we understand the frustration others feel in his presence, but also feel for Davis as he meets up with one disaster after another. And there is one moment when the underlying Dave Van Ronk-ness of the film brought this old fan to the verge of tears: when Isaac/Davis plays a few tentative bars of Van Ronk’s version of “Cocaine Blues” on the guitar. (A close second: when Van Ronk himself turns up on the soundtrack during the closing credits.) Stephanie Zacharek nailed it when she compared this to Next Stop, Greenwich Village. #114 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 8/10. My favorite movie from the Coens remains Fargo. If you’d like to see more of Justin Timberlake, who turns in a low-key supporting performance here, try The Social Network or Black Snake Moan. And A Mighty Wind might make for a nice double-bill.
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). No particular reason why I decided to revisit the zombie classic. I think I underestimated it in its early years. It was so cheap-looking, especially on the crappy versions shown on crappy TVs during the Creature Feature days, that I assumed the amateurish quality overcame the intentions of Romero. When Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978, I thought the real classic had arrived: in color, lots more gore, much funnier than the original. And course, since those times, Romero’s films have become a franchise full of sequels and remakes, while an entire industry of movies influenced by Night keep on coming. Compared to the rush of 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead is almost tame, not because of the different level of gore, but because of the amphetamine rush of Danny Boyle’s film. Finally, it is impossible in 2014 to watch Night of the Living Dead without carrying the baggage of the past 45 years. So I’ll never really know if I think this movie is the classic everyone else sees. I’ve grown more appreciative of the acting over the years, and it’s impressive how much Romero and team are in control, considering how little experience they had. I’m sticking with the 8/10 I’ve given the movie in the past. #238 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. There are so many possibilities for a double-bill … the afore-mentioned Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later would be good, and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead is also interesting.