THE DEAD DON’T DIE (20190

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Love it or hate it. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes it is. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been making his own brand of videos, shorts, documentaries and features since the 1980’s. He has a loyal following of viewers who “get” him, and even within those ranks there is debate about which of his projects work and which don’t. You know who doesn’t care?  Jim Jarmusch, that’s who. He creates the work he wants to create and works with the actors and crew that he wants to work with … he’s best described as the type who lets the art speak for itself.

As we pull into town, the billboard states “Welcome to Centerville. A real nice place. Population 738”. It’s a bland town with a bland name filled with bland people whose bland conversations focus on doughnuts and pie from the town’s only diner. The police force totals 3 (seems high for such a small town). Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the veteran police chief, while Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) are the deputies … all three are bespectacled.

Initial interactions provide a quick lay of the land. Farmer Frank (a loud-mouthed Steve Buscemi) accuses Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) of stealing his chicken. Hermit Bob lives in the woods and doesn’t take kindly to accusations. Frank, despite his racist core, is somehow friendly with Hank (Danny Glover), a mild-mannered local who chats it up at the diner. Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) is the town’s pop culture guru who runs the gas station/comic book store.

Even this law enforcement team recognizes strange things are happening: the sun doesn’t set when it should, watches are stopped, and animals are disappearing. We hear news reports that ‘polar fracking’ has knocked the earth off its axis, coupled with government denials stating jobs are plentiful and profits are up. Obviously this is Jarmusch taking his shots at the environmental policies and focus on the economy of the current administration. Our first zombie attack happens at the diner (of course) and features Sara Driver (Jarmusch’s long-time partner) and Iggy Pop (who requires little make-up to be convincing as a zombie). Many more zombies follow.

While Murray’s Cliff and Mr. Driver’s Ronnie maintain their deadpan conversations and reactions, it’s Ms. Sevigny’s Mindy who is terrified in the face of their nonchalance. Adding color to the mix is Tilda Swinton as Zelda, the samurai sword wielding mortician with a Scottish accent, a flair for make-up and an other-worldly secret. Also appearing are Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez and RZA.

As the opening film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s a blend of comedy, fantasy, horror, zombie, and social commentary … but none of the pieces are particularly effective. It’s somehow both wry and mundane, and not meant to be traditionally scary or laugh out loud funny. Jarmusch has delivered such diverse films as PATERSON (2016), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), and BROKEN FLOWERS (2005). “This isn’t going to end well” is a line Driver’s Ronnie states a few times, and it’s both foreshadowing and self-awareness from the filmmaker. It’s his commentary on the state of the world, as well as the movie.

Zombie-comedies have been done (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and many others), and it’s usually best to bring something new to a tired genre. Instead, Jarmusch pays tribute to such films as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, KILL BILL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, PSYCHO, and STAR WARS. He even tips his cap to Samuel Fuller (gravestone) and George Romero (a 1969 Pontiac LeMans). As if to acknowledge the love-hate factor that goes with his movies, Jarmusch allows Sturgill Simpson’s (also appearing as the guitar-zombie) theme song to exemplify such division. Selena’s character and Ronnie love the song, while Murray’s Cliff can’t stand it and flings the disc out of the car window.

You are likely wondering if the world needs yet another take on the zombie apocalypse. Of course, the answer is no … which means in Hollywood, there are countless more zombie apocalypse TV series and movies (numerous sequels) in the works. Jarmusch isn’t here to simply add another number to the genre. No, he uses the format to proclaim that our society is soul-dead. He believes we are all stumbling, zombie-like, through life, rattling off our favorite products. He may be right.

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THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2019)

April 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it’s often best to relax one’s expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He’s the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We’ve seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy – and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he’s had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam’s first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it’s not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha.” There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it’s also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and “recognizes” (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it’s a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It’s definitely not for everyone – more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: “This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones.”

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)

August 9, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adam Driver impersonating John David Washington or vice versa … either way is comical, except that it’s also based on a true story where their characters existed and this chain of events actually occurred. The source material is the memoir by Ron Stallworth and it’s possible, given today’s social climate, that only director Spike Lee could pull off a film that so blatantly uses racism for comedic effect, yet also reminds us of its inherent danger.

Mr. Washington (Denzel’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first black rookie police officer. His job interview is quite awkward and, of course, features a reference to Jackie Robinson. Quickly growing tired of his records room duty, Stallworth’s first field assignment is to infiltrate a local black activist group and report back on a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. This leads to a much bigger and riskier plan of going after the KKK. Yes that’s right, no need to re-read the part about him being the first black police officer. This is the incredible story of how an African-American (with the help of his white partner) worked his way into the KKK, even speaking with David Duke on a few occasions, and ultimately prevented an attack on local black activists.

The adapted screenplay was a collaborative effort from Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and director Spike Lee. The film is simultaneously laugh outloud funny and provocative. The outlandish plan involves Ron Stallworth (and his white voice) being the telephone connection, and partner (and non-practicing Jew) Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) being the “white face” of Ron Stallworth at KKK meetings. There is extreme tension during Zimmerman’s undercover scenes, and much of the humor occurs during Stallworth’s phone conversations. Topher Grace is extremely effective as David Duke, a thankless role to say the least.

Superb support work is widespread in this film that runs 2 hour and 15 minutes. Robert John Burke plays a no-nonsense Chief Bridges; Frederick Weller is racist jackass patrolman Andy Landers; Laura Harrier is Patrice, the Angela Davis lookalike activist and love interest; Jasper Paakkonen plays skeptical and high-strung Klansman Felix; Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA) is the comical and unnerving Ivanhoe; and even Harry Belafonte makes a surprise big screen appearance. Other notables include Alec Baldwin (in an opening that sets the stage), Nicholas Turturro, Damaris Lewis, Ryan Eggold, Isiah Whitlock Jr, and Arthur J Nascarella. It’s a terrific and deep cast and they walk the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. There is no shortage of Hollywood family genes and blending thanks to: Washington, Baldwin, Turturro, Buscemi, and Weller (it plays like 2 degrees of separation).

A low-budget look to the film gives it an authenticity and 1970’s vibe, and cinematographer Chayse Irvin works wonders with the camera in a multitude of situations where our attention should be on the dialogue of the characters rather than the colorfulness of set pieces. Black Ron running the show from a telephone (and a white voice) and White Ron face-first in the muck both have their burdens to bear, and much of the time, Zimmerman’s is the more interesting of the two – although as a whole, it’s an astonishing story.

Perhaps Spike Lee set out to make the polar opposite of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 most controversial film THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and he has certainly crafted one of the most effective films of his oeuvre. He also nails a few jabs at Trump and the current political climate, while the music from Terrence Blanchard perfectly complements the tone. Mr. Lee interjects some historic moments as well as some fictional ones – none more powerful than the back and forth chants of “White Power” “Black Power”. At the conclusion, Lee serves up footage of Charlottesville, reminding us that the racism that caused us chuckles over the past couple of hours, remains prevalent today … only that’s not the least bit funny.

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LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of public figures retiring, we typically accept that athletes, politicians and entertainers will no longer be honing their craft or grinding in their profession. Perhaps they will write their memoirs, or even dodge TMZ completely by spending their days fishing or playing golf. When Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was “retiring” from making movies after his 2013 SIDE EFFECTS, he simply transitioned to television (excellence in “The Knick”). Most of us assumed it was only a matter of time until he returned to the medium that made him famous. This “retirement” lasted less than 4 years.

When a line in the film describes it as “Ocean’s 7-11”, we can assume this is Mr. Soderbergh admitting that his “Ocean’s” trilogy was the inspiration for this comedy-satire heist film focusing on a well-planned crime by a team of siblings, rednecks and convicts. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough star as the Logan clan – Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie, respectively. With NASCAR as the target, the Logans are joined by the Bangs: Sam (Brian Gleeson), Fish (Jack Quaid), and Joe (a scene-stealing bleached blonde Daniel Craig).

Joining in the unconventional Hicksville fun are Katie Holmes and David Denman as Jimmy’s ex-wife and her new husband, a recently shorn Sebastian Stan as a race car driver, Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxiously rich blow-hard, Katherine Waterston in a too-brief role as a traveling medic, Hilary Swank as a determined FBI Agent, and Dwight Yoakum as a prison warden who rarely admits a problem. Also playing a key role is the music of John Denver … a move that teeters between tribute and punchline.

The set up and characters lend themselves to more laughter than we actually experience. There are more awkward moments than hilarious ones. As examples, brother Clyde’s (Driver) artificial hand is the center of focus on a few occasions, as are Joe Bang’s (Craig) expertise in science, and the small town West Virginia addiction to child beauty pageants. Their racetrack robbery plan is both ingenious and preposterous, which is also a fitting description of the film.

A writing credit goes to “Rebecca Blunt”, which in keeping with Soderbergh’s tradition, is a pseudonym (or nom de plume) for an unnamed writer (likely Soderbergh himself). The film mostly succeeds in delivering the opposite of the traditional Ocean’s slickness, and it’s entertaining to watch Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig (the credits list him as “introducing Daniel Craig) having such a good time on screen. While it doesn’t deliver the laughs of FREE FIRE or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, it is nice to have Soderbergh back where he belongs. Rather than an instant classic, it’s more likely to be remembered for Soderbergh’s attempt to change the movie distribution channels … Google can provide the details if you are interested.

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PATERSON (2016)

January 8, 2017

paterson-b Greetings again from the darkness. Do you find poetry in everyday life? What about poets … do you envision loners whose lives are filled with angst and suffering? Our lead character here is a pretty normal guy who drives a city bus, has a happy marriage, and walks his dog each evening. He’s also a poet – and a pretty interesting one.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, 2005) often seems like he is making films for his circle of friends … all whom must be much cooler than you and me. This time, however, he takes an opposite approach and brilliantly focuses on a dude that any of us could know. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a New Jersey Transit bus driver who writes poetry based on his observations of life’s seemingly minor details (his first poem notes “We have plenty of matches in our house”).

You should be forewarned: there are no murders, kidnappings, bank robberies or shootouts. Things move rather deliberately. Also missing are any special effects – heck, Adam Driver even got licensed to drive a bus for the role. Instead, we are forced to slow down and see each of the seven days of a week through the eyes and words of Paterson. He observes. He listens. He people watches. He then commits his thoughts to the page and recites them for our benefit. Sometimes he is eavesdropping on bus passengers, while other times he curiously tries to figure out the newest “dream” for his beloved wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Having the soul of an artist, Laura cloaks her world in a geometric black and white color scheme while energetically bounding from cupcakes to country and western music to cooking as she pursues her place in life.

There are many Jarmusch touches throughout. Paterson the poet actually lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey … yep, Paterson from Paterson. The interactions at the neighborhood bar (run by Barry Shabaka Henley) are simultaneously real and surreal – right down to the wall of local fame (including Hurricane Carter and Lou Costello, but no mention of Larry Doby). Coincidences abound. A young girl recites her poem to Paterson … her writing style, personal book, and delivery make her seem like his poetic doppelganger – all while the recurring appearance of numerous sets of twins make us believe in the law of attraction. Lastly, the closest thing to a villain in the film is Paterson’s bulldog Marvin, in what plays like a love-hate relationship with the mailbox being center-ring.

Another local Paterson (the city) aspect is Paterson’s (the poet) admiration of the works of William Carlos Williams, a poet whose style he emulates. One of the terrific scenes near the end involves a spontaneous interaction between Paterson and town visitor (Masatoshi Nagase) that takes place next to The Great Falls, and serves as a reminder that we should accept who we are, no matter the challenges or lack of glory. This is truly director Jarmusch’s ode to the artist/poet in each of us and in ordinary life. Creating art as best we can is a very personal thing, and for some it’s a need – while for others it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Regardless, a “normal” life with daily routines is not to be scorned, but rather embraced, should you be so fortunate. If you doubt this, Paterson asks, “Would you rather be a fish?”

**NOTE: sharp moviegoer eyes will recognize Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, who both had their debut in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

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SILENCE (2016)

January 5, 2017

silence Greetings again from the darkness. Martin Luther King said “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. Martin Scorcese’s esteemed film career could be described as unveiling that staircase, one step/film at a time. Religion, spirituality and yes, faith, have played a key role in his life and his films – most notably, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, but also most of his other projects.

A high-ranking priest (Ciaran Hinds) is meeting with two younger Portuguese priests and informing them of the rumor that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has reportedly renounced his faith and is now living as a Japanese Buddhist in Nagasaki. The two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this and request to be allowed to track down Ferreira and bring him home. It could be termed a rescue mission, and the two men could be called missionaries, but what follows is an excruciating test of their own faith.

Martin Scorcese has been working on this passion project for more than two decades – ever since he read the Shusaku Endo novel (published in 1966). Cast members have changed through the various iterations of the project, but after the box office success of The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese received the financial backing to bring his vision to the screen. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) and the result is the visual and emotional epic that you might expect from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

17th century Christianity in Japan might be a difficult subject to sell to the general movie-going public, and Scorcese goes out of his way to leave unanswered the multitude of questions the film raises. Rather than wrapping it up with a clean ending, he leaves viewers craving further discussions, clarity and explanations. In other words, it lacks mass appeal and shouldn’t be confused with light-hearted entertainment.

Rodrigues is resolute in his belief that God is the answer … even when the film’s title is at the forefront. As Rodrigues and Garupe minister to the village of secret Christians (led by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto) at night and hide during the day, we learn of the Japanese state’s commitment to eradicating Christians and Christianity to ensure the power and isolation of the country. The oddest character in the film is that of Kichijiro (an excellent Yosuke Kubozuka). He is both guide to the priests and a constant challenge to their faith, while also providing moments of comic relief in a film with very few. Were this a Kurosawa film, this role would have been a perfect fit for the great Tishiro Mifune.

The most obvious adversary for the priests is the Japanese elder known as The Inquisitor. Issei Ogata excels in the role as a wily, half-smiling, quite knowledgeable wartime (a war on Christianity) leader intent on creating the most painful and public extermination of Christian believers and those priests who dare to infect his country (Japan’s 1614 Edict of Expulsion). The torture and persecution is too much to detail here, but it portrays how even the most ardent believers could choose life over faith.

The film blends fiction with some true-to-life aspects, and is most effective at asking questions and spurring thought. Which is more crucial – public or private faith? Is doubt allowable and even understandable? Is Rodrigues so committed to faith or is there also an element of martyrdom present? How about the “Judas” sub-plots? Is it betrayal if it saves one’s own life? Just where is that line? Is Ferreira a disgraced priest or simply a man valuing survival? The film is beautiful to look at (superb work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker) while being exceedingly tough to watch (and quite long). Be prepared to set aside time for reflection and discussion … you may even discover some surprises in your views and beliefs.

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

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