Playing Catch-Up With The Films Of 2019: The Dead Don’t Die (by Jim Jarmusch)


Uh-oh, the dead are rising again.

Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many zombie films I’ve seen over the past ten years.  This last decade was the decade when zombies went mainstream and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about it.  Zombies have become so overexposed that they’re no longer as scary as they once were.  I mean, there’s even PG-rated zombie movies now!  How the Hell did that happen?  Everyone’s getting in on the act.

There were a brief flurry of excitement when Jim Jarmusch announced that his next film would be a zombie film.  Myself, I was a bit skeptical and the release of a terrible trailer didn’t really help matters.  The fact that the film was full of recognizable names also made me uneasy.  Would this be an actual zombie film or would it just be a bunch of actors slumming in the genre?  The film opened the Cannes Film Festival and received mixed reviews.  By the time it opened in the United States, it seemed as if everyone had forgotten about The Dead Don’t Die.  It was widely chalked up as being one of Jim Jarmusch’s rare misfires, like The Limits of Control.

Last month, I finally watched The Dead Don’t Die and you know what?  It’s a flawed film and yes, there are times when it even becomes an annoying film.  That said, I still kind of liked it.

In The Dead Don’t Die, the Earth’s rotation has been altered, the result of polar fracking.  No one seems to be particularly concerned about it.  Instead, they’re just kind of annoyed by the fact that the sun is now staying up in the sky a bit longer than usual.  Cell phones and watches stop working.  House pets abandon and occasionally attack their owners.  In the rural town of Centerville, the dead rise from their graves and start to eat people.  Whether or not that’s connected to the Earth’s rotation is anyone’s guess.  (I like to think that the whole thing about the Earth’s rotation being altered was Jarmusch’s homage to Night of the Living Dead‘s suggestion that the zombies were the result of space radiation.)

We meet the inhabitant of Centerville.  Zelda (Tilda Swinton) is the enigmatic mortician.  Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) is the horror movie expert.  Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) is the red-hatted farmer who hates everyone.  Zoe (Selena Gomez) is the traveler who is staying at the run-down motel with two friends.  Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the police chief who wants to save everyone but Farmer Miller.  Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) are police officers.  They’re all in the middle of a zombie apocalypse but very few of them seem to really be that surprised by any of it.

Throughout the film, we hear Sturgill Simpson singing a wonderful song called The Dead Don’t Die.  Cliff demands to know why the song is always one the radio.  Ronnie replies that it’s the “theme song.”  Ronnie, we discover, has an answer for almost everything.  He explains that he knows what’s going to happen because he’s the only one that “Jim” allowed to read the entire script.  Cliff isn’t happy about that.

That’s the type of film that The Dead Don’t Die is.  It’s an elaborate in-joke, a zombie movie about people who know that they’re in a zombie movie but who are too detached to actually use that information to their advantage.  The script has been written so they have no choice but to do what the script says regardless of whether it makes them happy or not.  It’s a clever conceit, though a bit of a thin one to build a 103-minute movie around.

As I said, the film can occasionally be an endurance test.  Everyone is so deadpan that you actually find yourself getting angry at them.  But, whenever you’re on the verge of giving up, there will be a clever line that will draw you back in or the theme song will start playing again.  Bill Murray and Adam Driver are fun to watch and Driver reminds us that he’s actually a good comedic actor.  (In the year of Marriage Story and Rise of Skywalker, that can be easy to forget.)

It’s a flawed film and definitely not one of Jim Jarmusch’s best.  At the same time, though, The Dead Don’t Die is not as bad as you may have heard.

Film Review: The Snowman (dir by Tomas Alfredson)


So, I finally watched the 2018 thriller, The Snowman, and my main reaction to the film is that it featured a lot of snow.

That’s understandable, of course.  The film takes place in Norway and it’s called The Snowman so, naturally, I wasn’t expecting a lot of sunshine.  Still, after a while, the constant shots of the snow-covered landscape start to feel like almost some sort of an inside joke.  It’s almost as if the film is daring you to try to find one blade of grass in Norway.  Of course, the snow is important because the film’s about a serial killer who builds snowmen at the sites of his crimes.  They’re usually pretty big snowmen as well.  It’s hard not to be a little impressed by the fact that he could apparently make such impressive snowmen without anyone noticing.

Along with the snow, the other thing that I noticed about this movie is that apparently no one knows how to flip a light switch in Norway.  This is one of those films where every scene seems to take place in a dark room.  I found myself worrying about everyone’s eyesight and I was surprised the everyone in the film wasn’t wearing glasses.  I can only imagine how much strain that puts on the eyes when you’re constantly trying to read and look for clues in the dark.

Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a Norwegian police inspector who may be troubled but still gets results!  He’s upset because his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a new boyfriend (Jonas Karlsson).  He’s also upset because his son (Michael Yates) doesn’t know that Harry is actually his father.  Or, at least, I think that Harry’s upset.  It’s hard to tell because Fassbender gives a performance that’s almost as cold as the snow covering the Norwegian ground.  Of course, he’s always watchable because he’s Fassbender.  But, overall, he doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in either the role or the film.

Harry and his new partner (Rebecca Ferguson) are investigating a missing person’s case, which quickly turns into a multiple murder mystery.  It turns out that the crimes are linked to a bunch of old murders, all of which were investigated by a detective named Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer).  Gert was troubled but he still got results!  Or, at least, Harry thinks that he may have gotten results.  Nine years ago, Rafto died under mysterious circumstances…

Now, I have to admit that when, 30 minutes into the film, the words “9 years earlier” flashed on the screen, I groaned a bit.  I mean, it seemed to me that the movie was already slow enough without tossing in a bunch of flashbacks.  However, I quickly came to look forward to those brief flashbacks, mostly because they featured Val Kilmer in total IDGAF mode.  Kilmer stumbles through the flashbacks, complete with messy hair and a look of genuine snarky bemusement on his face.  Kilmer gives such a weird and self-amused performance that his brief scenes are the highlight of the film.

Before it was released, The Snowman was hyped as a potential Oscar contender.  After the movie came out and got roasted by the critics, director Tomas Alfredson replied that the studio forced him to rush through the production and that 10 to 15% of the script went unfilmed.  Considering Alfredson’s superior work on Let The Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The film’s disjointed style would certainly seem to back up Alfredson’s claim that there was originally meant to be more to the film than actually ended up on the screen.

The Snowman is one of those films that doesn’t seem to be sure what it wants to be.  At times, it aspires to David Lynch-style surrealism while, at other times, it seems to be borrowing from the morally ambiguous crime films of Taylor Sheridan.  Ultimately, it’s a confused film that doesn’t seem to have much reason for existing.  At the same time, I’ve also been told that the Jo Nesbø novel upon which the movie is based is excellent.  The same author also wrote the novel that served as the basis for 2011’s Headhunters, which was pretty damn good.  So, read the book and ignore the film.

Trailer Round-Up: Lizzie, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, The Good Cop, Maniac


Lisa already shared this week’s big trailer, the one for Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk.  Here’s the best of the rest:

Starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, Lizzie is revisionist take on the infamous Lizzie Borden murder trial.  Lizzie received some attention at Sundance this year and is set to be released into theaters on September 14th.

The Puppet Master and his puppets are back in the red band trailer for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich .  Keep an eye out for them on August 17th!

Josh Groban is The Good Cop, in this upcoming series from Netflix.  Based on an acclaimed Israeli series, The Good Cop drops on September 21st.

And finally, Maniac.  Dropping the same day as The Good Cop, Maniac is described as being “a dark 10-episode comedy based on the 2014 Norwegian series about a guy who lives a fantasy life in his dreams but in reality is locked up at an institution.”  Directed by True Detective‘s  Cary Fukunaga, Maniac reunites Superbad co-stars, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions for January!


How early can one predict the Oscars?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.  You can predict the Oscars at any time during the year.  However, predicting them correctly is next to impossible before October.  That said, I’m going to give it a shot!

Now, to be clear, this is not an attempt to predict who and what will be nominated later this month.  Instead, these are my predictions for what will be nominated next year at this time!  I’ll be updating my predictions every month of this year.

So, with all that in mind, here are my way too early predictions for what will be nominated in January of 2019!  As of right now, these predictions are a collection of instinct and random guesses.  For all we know, some of these films might not even get released in 2018.  In all probability, we’ll look back at this list in December and laugh.

 

Best Picture

Chappaquiddick

First Man

Lizzie

Mary Queen of Scots

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Mortal Engines

A Star is Born

Widows

Wildfire

The Women of Marwen

 

Best Director

Desiree Akhavon for The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Damien Chazelle for First Man

Paul Dano for Wildfire

Steve McQueen for Widows

Robert Zemeckis for The Women of Marwen

 

Best Actor

Steve Carell in The Women of Marwen

Jason Clarke in Chappaquiddick

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildfire

Joaquin Phoenx in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

 

Best Actress

Viola Davis in Widows

Chloe Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Carey Mulligan in Wildfire

Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots

Chloe Sevigny in Lizzie

 

Best Supporting Actor

Jeff Daniels in The Catcher Was A Spy

Bruce Dern in Chappaquiddick

Sam Elliott in A Star is Born

Robert Duvall in Widows

Hugo Weaving in Mortal Engines

 

Best Supporting Actress

Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

Claire Foy in First Man

Leslie Mann in The Women of Marwen

Kate Mara in Chappaquiddick

Kristen Stewart in Lizzie

 

Playing Catch-Up: Beatriz at Dinner (dir by Miguel Arteta)


Beatriz at Dinner is very much a film of the moment, which is a polite way of saying that it’s not very good but it does accurately reflect the way that a lot of people are feeling right now.  I imagine that’s the main reason why it’s received a good deal of critical acclaim.  It was even cited, by the National Board of Review, as one of the top ten independent films of the year.  By 2019, I doubt anyone will even remember that this film exists.

Salma Hayek plays the title character.  Beatriz is a massage therapist in Los Angeles.  She’s not having a good day.  Not only has her neighbor killed one of her goats but, while she’s at the house of one of her wealthy clients, her car suddenly won’t start.  Beatriz says that she can call a friend to come pick her up but that he won’t be able to show up until after he gets off work.  Beatriz’s client, Kathy (Connie Britton), invites Beatriz to stay for dinner.

Kathy is a familiar type.  She’s the rich, privileged white woman who probably brags about how nice she is to her maid.  Kathy’s husband (David Warshofsky) may not want Beatriz to stay but Kathy feels that they owe a debt to Beatriz because Beatriz helped their daughter recover after she was treated for cancer.  Kathy not only insists that Beatriz stay for dinner but she also asks Beatriz to not only stay the night but also to sing everyone a song after they’ve eaten.  As Kathy’s rich friends start to arrive for dinner, Kathy treats Beatriz like a prop, blithely unaware of how awkward Beatriz feels around her guests.

The main dinner guest is an arrogantly vulgar businessman named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).  Doug is best known for building hotels, forcing poor people off of their land, and constantly bragging about how rich and famous he is.  He is even working on a memoir.  (In perhaps Beatriz at Dinner‘s only show of restraint, the film does not make him a reality show host.)  The first time that Doug sees Beatriz, he assumes that she must be a maid and asks her to get him a drink.  When Beatriz later launches into a monologue about her childhood in Mexico and how she first came to the United States, Doug interrupts to boorishly ask if she came legally.  Whenever anyone admonishes Doug for being rude, he merely laughs it off and says that he doesn’t mean to be offensive.  He’s just telling it like it is.

Hmmmm … I wonder who Doug is supposed to be a stand-in for?

Anyway, this all sounds promising enough but Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t really do much with this material.  Just as with his previous overrated film, Cedar Rapids, director Miguel Arteta fails to generate any sort of narrative momentum.  Basically, the entire film is Doug saying something offensive and Beatriz glaring at him.  We keep waiting for Beatriz to blow up but when she finally does start to talk back to Doug, it’s anti-climatic.  The dialogue suddenly starts to feel forced and unnatural.  Doug goes from being a disturbingly credible vulgarian to just being another comic book villain and, as a result, Beatriz’s speech feels almost as empty as an angry thread of tweets.  When Beatriz does take more concrete action towards Doug, the film ruins it all with an obvious twist that is nowhere close to being as profound as the filmmakers seem to think it is.  If Beatriz at Dinner was truly as revolutionary as it seems to think it is, that twist wouldn’t be there.

(Buñuel and Godard, who are both obvious influences on Beatriz at Dinner, would dismiss the twist as bourgeois bullshit.)

In the lead role, Salma Hayek is good but not great.  There’s really not much depth to Beatriz as a character.  She functions more as a symbol than as a human being.  (In many ways, the filmmakers treats Beatriz much in the same way that Kathy treats Beatriz, as a prop.)  John Lithgow steals the entire movie, giving the only performance that actually shows a hint of real and dangerous charisma.  As hateful a person as Doug may be, he is truthful about one thing.  He is the only character in the movie who always says exactly what is on his mind.  Lithgow plays Doug as not just a vulgarian but also as someone who is proud of being vulgar and who specifically goes out of his way to see how offensive he can be.  At times, Lithgow is the only member of the cast actually bringing any life to this stifling bore of a film.  Unfortunately, Lithgow is so good that he overpowers the rest of the cast.  When Beatriz rebukes him, Hayek delivers her lines with a heartfelt fury that briefly threatens to rescue the movie from Doug but all Lithgow has to do is smirk and just like that, he’s taken the movie back from her.

For a lot of people, the appeal of Beatriz at Dinner is that Doug is obviously meant to be Trump and Beatriz says everything that they wish they could say.  They see Beatriz’s frustration and anger and they immediately recognize it as being their frustration and anger.  That’s a perfectly legitimate and understandable reaction but that doesn’t necessarily make Beatriz at Dinner a good film.  It just makes it a film of the moment.

Playing Catch-Up: Love & Friendship (dir by Whit Stillman)


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Earlier this week, I named Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as the worst Jane Austen adaptation of 2016.  Of course, I understand that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t really a Jane Austen adaptation.  Instead, it’s an adaptation of a jokey novel that took Austen’s characters and combined them with zombies.  But you know what?  Nobody would have given a damn if the name of that book and that movie didn’t include three words:  Pride.  And.  Prejudice.  That’s the power of Jane Austen.

But anyway, my point is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was pretty much a low point as far as Jane Austen films are concerned.  Fortunately, 2016 also saw the release of a very enjoyable and entertaining Jane Austen film named Love & Friendship and, even better, Love & Friendship was based on something that Austen actually wrote.

Of course, though Austen may have written the novella Lady Susan, it wasn’t published until long after her death and there’s speculation that it was an unfinished (or abandoned) first draft.  In fact, it’s debatable whether or not Lady Susan was something that Austen would have ever wanted to see published.  While it shares themes in common with Austen’s best known work, it also features a lead character who is far different from the stereotypical Austen heroine.  Lady Susan Vernon is vain, selfish, manipulative, and unapologetic about her numerous affairs.  She’s also one of the wittiest of Austen’s characters, a woman who is capable of identifying and seeing through the hypocrisies of 18th century society.

In Love & Friendship, Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale, who does a great job in the role.  One of the best things about Love & Friendship is that it serves to remind us that Kate Beckinsale is a very good actress, even when she isn’t dealing with vampires and Lycans and all that other Underworld stuff.  Lady Susan is a recent widow and has been staying, with her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), at the estate of Lord and Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray and Lochlann O’Mearáin) .  That’s a good thing because, as a result of the death of her husband, Lady Susan is now virtually penniless and homeless.  But, once it becomes obvious that Susan is having an affair with Lord Manwaring, she and Frederica are kicked out of the estate.

They eventually find themselves living with Susan’s brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Charles’s wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell).  Susan, realizing that she needs to find not only a rich husband for Frederica but also one for herself, immediately starts to scheme to win the hand of Catherine’s brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel).  Meanwhile, Susan also tries to arrange for Frederica to marry the hilariously slow-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).  Needless to say, things do not go quite as plan and it’s all rather chaotic and hilarious in its wonderfully refined way.

Director Whit Stillman, who has spent his career making refined and witty movies about morality and manners, is the ideal director for Austen’s material and he’s helped by an extremely witty (and, with the exception of Chloe Sevigny, very British) cast.  In the role of Susan, Kate Beckinsale is a force of nature and Tom Bennett is hilariously dense as Sir James, the type of well-meaning dunce who is literally stumped when someone asks him, “How do you do?”  Never before has dullness been so hilariously performed and Bennett’s performance really is a minor miracle.

Love & Friendship was a wonderful excursion into Austenland.  It didn’t even require zombies to be enjoyable.

 

Back to School Part II #32: Kids (dir by Larry Clark)


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The first time that I ever saw Kids, the 1995 directorial debut of Larry Clark, my initial response was to wonder what the Hell everyone was talking about.

Seriously, I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying.  The two main characters — 15 year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) — talked almost constantly.  In fact, Telly even narrated the film.  But both of them had such thick Northern accents and both of them were so inarticulate that I spent 75% of the movie trying to understand what they were going on about.  (Add to that, Casper is pretty much either drunk or stoned through the entire film.)  Don’t get me wrong.  I understood enough to know what was going on in the movie.  I knew that Telly was obsessed with having sex with virgins and that he didn’t know that he was HIV positive.  I knew that Casper considered himself to be the “dopest ghost in town,” and that he ended the film by coming out of his daze long enough to look straight at the camera and ask, “What the fuck happened?”  But a lot of the dialogue in-between got lost as a result of Telly growling and Casper slurring.

So, when I rewatched Kids for this review, I turned on the close captioning so that I could read what it was that Telly and Casper were actually saying to each other while they were walking around New York City.  After a few minutes, I started to really wish that I had just remained ignorant.  Seriously, you may hate Telly but you’ll hate even more once you understand everything that he actually says during the opening scenes of the film.  Telly is literally one of the most disgusting pervs to ever be at the center of a motion picture.  “Virgins,” he announces at the start of the film, “I love them!”  He also infects them and what’s truly disturbing is that you get the feeling that, even if he knew he was HIV positive, Telly wouldn’t change his behavior at all.

Reportedly, Leo Fitzpatrick got death threats after starring in Kids.  Because he was making his film debut in Kids and because the film’s cast was reportedly made up of actual street kids, many viewers assumed that Fitzpatrick was playing himself.  Fitzpatrick is one of the few members of the cast to have actually maintained an acting career after Kids and, by most accounts, he’s not Telly.  That said, Telly is such a demonic character and Fitzpatrick does such a good job playing him that, admittedly, it is strange to see him subsequently play characters who are far different from Telly.  (His performance as faux hitman in Clark’s Bully is one of the highlights of that film.)

Justin Pierce also continued to act after Kids, though his efforts to maintain a career were reportedly hampered by his own personal demons.  Sadly, Pierce committed suicide in 2000, hanging himself in Las Vegas.  As raw as it may be, Pierce probably gives the best performance in Kids.  I’m sure that some would be tempted to say that Pierce was just playing himself but there’s also a sly humor to his performance that isn’t necessarily present in the script.  Casper is a despicable character who not only possibly beats a man to death but who also rapes one of his so-called friends when she’s passed out on a coach.  At times, Casper seems to almost be brain-dead.  (We’re told that he’s been sniffing glue since the 4th grade.)  But then there’s a few scenes where we get hints of who Casper could have been if he hadn’t fried his brain.

(For instance, it’s interesting to note that, alone among the male characters, Casper is the only one who occasionally behaves in a generous manner.  He may steal a piece of fruit but he then gives it to a young girl waiting outside of a dilapidated building.  In the famous scene in which a legless man asks for money while singing, “I have no legs/I have no legs,” Casper gives him money while Telly rolls his eyes.  Casper may be awful but, unlike Telly, he’s not a total sociopath.)

(It’s also interesting to note that, while we meet Telly’s mom and hear from her that Telly has a strained relationship with his dad, we never meet or hear about Casper’s family.  While Kids may be critical of Telly and Casper and their friends, it’s true scorn is reserved for the frequently unseen adults who all either seem to either be in denial or just incredibly callous as far as their children are concerned.)

And then there’s Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, both making their film debut in Kids.  They play friends who, at the start of the movie, both go to a clinic to get the results of their HIV tests.  The promiscuous Ruby (Dawson) is negative.  Jennie (Sevigny), however, is positive.  Since she’s only had sex with one person, she knows that she caught it from Telly.  What little plot that Kids has deals with Jennie’s efforts to track down Telly before he has sex with another virgin.  From the minute that Jennie starts searching for Telly, you know that it’s a pointless mission.  Even if Jennie did manage to track down Telly, it’s doubtful he would listen to her.

Kids was the directorial debut of Larry Clark.  It was also the screenwriting debut of Harmony Korine and reportedly, it was considered to be very shocking and controversial when it was first released.  I have to admit that, even speaking as someone who grew up far away from the streets of New York on which Kids was cast and filmed, I’ve never been that shocked by Kids.  Don’t get me wrong — it’s a raw and powerful film and the scene where Sevigny sits in a cab and repeats to herself that she’s not going to die brought tears to my eyes.  But, no — the idea of kids and teenagers having sex, doing drugs, and getting violent is no longer shocking (if it ever was).

It’s just another day.