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.

watch the trailer:


THE SOUVENIR (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Viewers of writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature will likely be divided into two distinct groups: those who find it to be a beautifully artistic psychological study, and those who find it to be a painfully slow watch. Fortunately, most who would fall into the latter group will likely skip it altogether, and we can only hope those in the first group will seek it out and encourage similar-minded film fans to attend. Surely both groups can agree that it features a terrific breakout lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton).

Ms. Swinton-Byrne stars as Julie, a young London film school student. She’s soon drawn to Anthony (Tom Burke), an odd man who is somehow simultaneously laid back and condescending. Their relationship builds as he works some vague job at the Foreign Office, and giving every indication that something’s not quite right. Many moments of normal life are shown; however we soon learn that Anthony is a master manipulator, and his off-handed requests for ‘a tenner’ or sticking Julie with a restaurant tab go deeper than being a simple jerk. We know heartbreak is coming for her; we just don’t know how when or how hard.

Tilda Swinton (a long-time friend of director Hogg) appears in a few scenes as Julie’s mom, and as you would expect, she perfectly captures the mother-daughter dynamics. Of course Julie is a film student struggling to make ends meet, but with her frequent requests for ‘mom loans’ coinciding with the Anthony relationship, mother knows best. Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 18th century painting gives the film its title, and provides a terrific scene with Julie and Anthony.

Later, when Anthony tells Julie, “You’re inviting me to do this to you”, we recognize this is an abusive relationship similar to those many women have endured. Set in the 1980’s, a doomed relationship looks eerily similar regardless of the era. The film serves as an example of how we sit in judgment of the love lives of others, while often remaining blind (or is it hopelessly optimistic) to our own relationship issues.

Ms. Hogg shot on film and there are some memorable shots throughout – especially within Julie’s apartment. There is a recurring split-screen shot where a wall divides what we see in the kitchen with what’s happening in the living area – we see characters on each side. This is the anti-Marvel movie. No special effects. No superheroes. And the only worlds in peril are those of average, flawed people like us.

There is a segment involving an analysis of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, and it’s clear director Hogg learned lessons about what not to show. There is also a reference to another Hitchcock classic with the tailored grey suit Tom buys for Julie and their trip to Venice. Alfonso Cuaron scored big with ROMA, a very intimate look at his personal life, and filmmaker Hogg’s film is in that same vein. It’s extremely well made and beautiful to look at, and is likely to be quite challenging for viewers. The payoff comes after much patience and effort and investment into figuring out these characters. It’s an arthouse film with improvised dialogue (bonus points for Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”). This was a grand jury prize winner at Sundance, and the sequel is already in production … good news for some of us, while inexplicable to others.

watch the trailer:


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

April 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled “Avengers: Infinity War Part 2”, we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films … specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

 

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos?

What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play?

Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life?

Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space?

Who will survive this final battle?

 

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it’s colossal/humongous/monumental … whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey … and I don’t offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic’s classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by ‘Infinity War’, we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we’ve come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you’ve never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans’ 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film – as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that’s the closest thing to a negative I have to offer – and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we’ve gotten to know over multiple films … and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It’s quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a ‘women’s movement’ moment that seems to be Marvel’s “we hear you” statement. Much of what we see is “inevitable”, but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when ‘over-the-top’ is ‘just right’.

watch the trailer:

 


SUSPIRIA (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. After three artsy prestige projects (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE), Oscar nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decides to let his freak flag fly. And what better way than to pay homage to his fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal cult classic that featured a blinding color palette, obtuse camera angles, and enough schlock-horror (in a good way) to remain a midnight movie favorite for more than 40 years? While both movies are B**S**T crazy, we can’t help but think a filmmaker of Mr. Guadagnino’s caliber should have done better.

Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) stars as Susie, a Bambi-eyed self-trained dancer raised in Ohio by her Mennonite parents. Following her dream, she shows up for an audition at the world renowned Markos Dance Company in Berlin. The film is set in 1977 (the same year as the original was released) and Susie sufficiently impresses the company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to be invited to join.

A title card informs us that we are about to undertake “Six Acts and an Epilogue set in divided Berlin”. It should have added the run time of two-and-a-half hours (it seemed longer). For those of us who would pay to watch Tilda Swinton in any role, this one does deliver bonus value. The enormously talented actress who has disappeared into numerous characters over the years, plays two other roles here – disguised by heavy make-up in both. The trade-off is that Ms. Johnson is the lead, so not only are we subjected to the limitations of her acting, but also camera-trickery when it comes to her dance scenes. A bushy bushy red hairdo conceals her face during the most physically demanding dance sequences … think Cousin It from “The Addams Family”.

An almost entirely female cast features some interesting choices from across generational and geographical boundaries. Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven have long been familiar faces on the big screen, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine choices for the younger company members. As an added bonus, Jessica Harper appears in one segment towards the end. Ms. Harper played the lead role of Suzy in the original. Other fun comparisons between the two films are the original score by Goblin compared to the updated (and more serene) score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the muted color palette chosen by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this updated version.

The reason there is an open spot in the company for Susie is that Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has disappeared after unloading her ‘coven of witches’ theory on an aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Dr. Klemperer initially thinks the hysterical Patricia is delusional, and would prefer to wallow in his grief over his beloved wife Anke – missing since WWII. When Susie gets her shot at the lead in what is to be the company’s final performance of its most famous dance piece Volk, we get the film’s best sequence and one of a few WTF moments. A mirrored dance studio is the site of unexplained violence, and some terrific editing shoots us back and forth between art and mayhem. It’s difficult to watch but exceedingly well done.

Unfortunately, the truly bizarre and horrific moments are much too rare. In fact, some of the segments come off as unintentionally funny, which is not a good thing for a horror flick. The primal dancing never seems sensual, the bloodbath finale is too far over the top, and the political subtext with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group just never seems to fit. While watching this, a few films came to mind: BLACK SWAN, THE WICKER MAN, MOTHER!, and ROSEMARY’S BABY, though this one doesn’t reach the level of any of those. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t lend itself to analysis or review, and it comes down to whether this is your cup of tea.

watch the trailer:


A BIGGER SPLASH (2016)

June 5, 2016

a bigger splash Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said before that she is such a fascinating actress that I would probably buy a ticket to watch Tilda Swinton just stand on stage. In her latest collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009), Ms. Swinton’s character remains mostly silent, save a few well placed whispers and one uncontrollable outburst, and she is certainly worth the price of that ticket.

Adding to the movie fun here is a script by David Kajganich adapted from Alain Paige’s story that was the basis for the 1969 film La Piscine. Ms. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a glam rock singer (think 60’s-70’s David Bowie) who has gone on holiday to recover from throat surgery. She is accompanied by her photographer/filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the couple has sought seclusion and serenity on the picturesque Italian island of Pantalleria in the Strait of Siciliy. They spend their time sunbathing (European style) and enjoying intimacy in the swimming pool at the stunning compound they have rented.

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if things went according to plan. Blowing into town like the upcoming sirocco winds is Marianne’s former lover and former music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Showing up uninvited adds to the palpable underlying tension – which only gets thicker as the layers are peeled back. In addition to the former relationship of Marianne and Harry, it turns out Harry and Paul were once close friends, and it’s only been in the last year that Harry found out Penelope is his daughter (and there’s even some doubt on this).

Fiennes’ Harry is the kind of annoying blow-hard we want to punch after about 5 minutes. He is unrelenting with his energy and motor-mouth approach to most every moment in life. In that same 5 minute span, we also figure out his not-so-subtle desire to win back Marianne. His Lolita-type daughter may or may not be part of his plan, but she surely has her own sights set on Paul. Over food, wine and swimming, we learn more and more backstory on each character, and it’s pretty obvious the beautiful bodies and faces are masking mountains of vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Ms. Swinton, despite her minimal dialogue, makes Marianne a captivating character – balancing the entitlement of a rock star with a desperate attempt to be normal. Mr. Schoenaerts brings his usual physicality and simmering emotional quiet to the role of Paul – a guy much less “together” than he would have us believe. Penelope is a good fit for Ms. Johnson, as she mostly lounges around the pool leering lustfully at Paul. But it’s Mr. Fiennes who rules the roost here with his appendage-flapping portrayal of the vulgar and vulnerable Harry – complete with Monty Python references, Mick Jagger dancing and au natural pool diving. It’s a different kind of role for Fiennes and one he clearly relishes.

It’s a film filled with lush visuals and fans (like me) of Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool will recognize the stylings of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Beauty abounds: the setting, the water, the clothes, and the house. Things do get a bit clunky in the third act with a minor sub-plot involving Tunisian refugees. Fortunately that doesn’t negate the many good things here … including a terrific and creative soundtrack featuring a couple of deep cuts from the Rolling Stones, Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire”, St. Vincent’s cover of “Emotional Rescue”, and even Robert Mitchum’s “Beauty is only Skin Deep”. It’s a stylish, ultra slow-burn emotional thriller that has a swimming pool shot somewhat reminiscent of the iconic one from Sunset Boulevard. If all of that is still not enough reason to buy that ticket … don’t forget about Ms. Swinton!

watch the trailer:

 

 


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


SNOWPIERCER (2014)

July 5, 2014

snowpiercer Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to understand how frequent movie goers develop an affinity for certain directors, however, it’s important to not blindly praise based on a name. Korean auteur director Joon-ho Bong has previously delivered a couple of artistic and interesting genre movies with The Host and Mother. His first (mostly) English language film is a sci-fi, politically-oriented action thriller that is based on a French graphic novel, and utilizes well known actors from the U.S. and U.K. This is definitely “world cinema”.

The basic premise is that a man-made experiment to “fix” severe global warming change goes bad, leaving the earth as an uninhabitable frozen tundra … even worse than Green Bay. The only survivors are those aboard a perpetual motion train that circles the earth year after year. Onboard is a class-segregation system (ala The Hunger Games) with the richest 1% at the front (first class) of the train and the 99% lower class bringing up the rear (steerage). This case of haves vs have-nots leads to the expected rebellion by the oppressed lower class.

As the rebels make their way towards the front of the train, each car brings new obstacles … in fact, each car plays like a new level in a video game – each different and more challenging than the previous. In between are a wide variety of creative fight scenes that allow the director to show off his visual acumen in close-quarter battles – some quite violent.

Comic relief is provided by a near clown-like Tilda Swinton. Her appearance and delivery are hilarious and seem better fit for a Wes Anderson movie … well, if not for the fact that I found the entire movie works better as a comedy than the political commentary it’s meant to be. Each of the main characters provide a bit of interest on their own: Chris Evans as the main rabble-rouser, Jamie Bell as his right-hand man, John Hurt as the old-timer and Octavia Spencer as the wronged-mother. Actually the best story line involves Nam and Yono (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung respectively) as a father-daughter team with skills integral to the rebellion, as well as their own agenda.

While the fight scenes were well-staged, I couldn’t help but think of beer commercials every time the camera provided an exterior shot of the train. Luckily these shots and the abundance of posturing and lame dialogue kept me chuckling enough that it overshadowed the high number of ridiculous sequences … not the least of which is the final introduction to the Wizard of Oz-like train engineer in the front car.

Director Joon-ho Bong continues his technical advancements in visual and action effects, but he will need to deliver much tighter stories to capture a large U.S. audience. In fact, more drama was delivered by his real-life “final cut” battles with Harvey Weinstein than the on screen uprising.

***NOTE: I think having Ed Harris wear his beret from The Truman Show would have been a nice effect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true “world cinema” production featuring talent from Korea, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe class warfare (even with a stop off at a sushi bar) is a topic best suited for real life

watch the trailer: