REVIEW: “The Dead Don’t Die”

dead poster

From its first announcement I could see hipster filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” running into problems with two distinct audiences. I could see it being far too Jarmusch-like (weird, dry, and off-beat) for many modern day moviegoers. At the same time I figured many Jarmusch aficionados would find it too lightweight and mainstream when compared to the filmmaker’s past works.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Jarmusch and this film has all the ingredients to be one of my favorites of the year. And while there are several things I like about this wacky zombie satire, it never really gets its footing and it’s hard to see it as anything more than Jarmusch dabbling in a new genre. There are several things he seems to be attempting to say, but none of it has any bite and most of it feels shallow and even a bit smug.

The film takes place in the cozy little town of Centerville, population 738. The welcome sign even reads “A Real Nice Place” so what could go wrong? Jarmusch spends a lot of time taking us around to meet the idiosyncratic townsfolk. Few are given any depth and many are simply set up to eventually become zombie fodder. Order is kept by Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murry) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). The two ride around town revealing the numerous locations we will be seeing again: the diner, the motel, the cemetery, the juvenile detention center, the gas station, and so on.

DEAD1

A star-studded and totally game cast fill out Jarmusch’s haughty vision of middle America. Tilda Swinton is the Scottish samurai sword wielding undertaker. Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller is a Trump-supporting bumpkin. Caleb Landry Jones runs the gas station/geek memorabilia shop. Tom Waits is the shaggy and homeless town hermit. Danny Glover owns the hardware store. Larry Fessenden runs the Moonlight Motel. A few other faces are sprinkled throughout including a hipster threesome led by Selena Gomez who are passing through Centerville at the worst possible time.

So about the zombies. In Jarmusch’s world the zombie apocalypse isn’t spawned from a passing comet or a viral outbreak. Nope, instead polar fracking knocks the earth off its axis causing the day/night cycle to go haywire, animals to disappear, our phones to go out, and eventually the rise of the innard-eating dead. The citizens of Centerville certainly notice the changes, but they’re either too dense or too ensnared in Jarmusch’s deadpan trappings to make much of it. Their dry, puzzled responses make for some of the movie’s funnier moments.

Jarmusch movies are known for their mellow pacing and laconic dialogue as well as their unique ways of embracing human eccentricities. “The Dead Don’t Die” features all of those traits. The difference here is with how the film meanders at times with no discernible purpose. In his previous films Jarmusch was able to maintain a steady connection to his characters even during his most leisurely moments of storytelling. We never have any real connections to any of these characters. And Jarmusch doesn’t seem to be embracing the eccentricities as much as he is just making fun of them.

DEAD2

That doesn’t mean all of our time spent with these characters is bad. Quite the opposite actually. But it’s mostly due to the performances more than the material. Easily the best scenes are the ones we spend with Driver and Murry. The two have a seamlessly funny chemistry and I found myself laughing without them saying a word. Chloë Sevigny is a great compliment playing Chief Cliff’s junior officer. The three of them together shouldn’t make any community feel safe but they’re plenty good at delivering laughs.

It’s also a hoot watching the supporting cast have fun with their characters regardless of how little depth they may have. Buscemi is able to mine some laughs out of a role that is strictly there for some fashionable but toothless MAGA bashing. Swinton can do ‘weird’ in her sleep and she gets the wackiest character of the bunch. And I really do love seeing Danny Glover popping up in these easy-going, low-key roles. Oh, and Iggy Pop credited as “Coffee Zombie” – magical.

So again, there are things to really enjoy about “The Dead Don’t Die”. When the humor lands well it can be pretty funny and it’s a blast seeing so many familiar faces (By the way, can we all agree that Adam Driver is one of the best and most diverse actors working today?). But sadly the whole thing comes across as aimless right up to its groan-worthy ending. There are several inside jokes and some pasted on commentary about us being the zombies clutching to our materialism and technology. But it has no bite whatsoever. So we’re left with the cast who are enough to save the film but just barely.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Death Proof”

DeathProofPOSTER

Quentin Tarantino’s weirdly audacious “Death Proof” is yet another example of the acclaimed filmmaker recapturing a slice of cinema history. This time he sets his sights on the old grindhouse theater experience. “Death Proof” released in theaters in 2007 as one-half of a schlocky B-movie twin-billing (Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” was the other film). This was common for the grindhouses that popped up throughout the 70’s but were mostly gone by the late 90’s.

For the most part grindhouse movies were cheaply made exploitation flicks, notorious for their low production value and bad print quality. “Death Proof” sees Tarantino attempting to capture two key facets of the genre. He writes his screenplay to resemble a bad movie you would see in those cut-rate theaters. But he puts just as much effort into making his film look and sound like it has been pulled from a time capsule. Crackling audio, grainy video, missing frames – it all makes for an eye-catching aesthetic which is inexplicably dropped around the midway point for no discernible reason at all.

“Death Proof” is a film of two halves. Both have striking similarities yet one is considerably stronger than the other. The first half starts with three friends Arlene, Shanna and Julia (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, and Sydney Tamilia Portier) heading to a bar on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. There they meet up with Lanna (Monica Staggs) and the four begin their night of partying.

Death1

Unfortunately for them they also meet a grizzled Hollywood stuntman appropriately named Stuntman Mike (a fantastic Kurt Russell). He’s an odd bird with a clear affection for menacing muscle cars and messy nachos. He takes notice of the young women in the bar and after a handful of snappy back-and-forths filled with Tarantino’s signature dialogue, the four friends drive off into the night. Unfortunately for them so does Stuntman Mike.

Up to this point “Death Proof” is hitting most of its marks. Aside from being fairly shallow and unashamedly trashy, Tarantino creates a cool blend of nostalgia and style that allows him to show off his inner film student. So much of what he does both technically and narratively hearkens back to the grindhouse genre. And his character work is equally effective. This is especially true for Russell who has a ton of fun in a role that seems custom-made for him.

If things ended there it would be a pretty satisfying foray into B-movie exploitation cinema. But there is the second half  and that is where the film’s momentum grinds to a halt. There is this weird transition that takes place both visually and from a story standpoint. Tarantino jumps ahead fourteen months and moves from Austin to Lebanon, Tennessee. He moves his focus to four new women played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoe Bell. They each work in the movie business (two of them stunt drivers) and are on break from a nearby film shoot.

Death2

Unfortunately their story is pretty lightweight. Tarantino is never able to muster a reason for us to be interested in them aside from their no-nonsense, tough-as-nails personalities. This is perhaps best illustrated in a diner scene clearly influenced by “Reservoir Dogs” down to the way it’s shot. It’s a drawn-out dialogue-driven sequence that could have worked if the characters had anything interesting to say. It’s a real momentum killer.

We’re left hungering for their inevitable encounter with Stuntman Mike who once again has his eyes set a group of unsuspecting young women. The big difference here is that these women fight back. It leads to the much talked about finale featuring some impressive practical effects and classic stuntwork despite being utterly ridiculous. It makes for a mildly satisfying ending but nothing particularly memorable.

And that’s something that could be said about “Death Proof” as a whole. Despite it’s throwback cinema bells and whistles, a pretty good first half, and a really fun Kurt Russell performance, the movie ends up losing steam and the second half can’t maintain the spark of the first 45 minutes or so. It’s a shame because there are some fun, nostalgic ideas throughout. But they aren’t enough to keep Tarantino’s eyes on the road.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Darkest Hour” (2017)

DARKESTPOSTER

Lest anyone be confused (and I highly doubt they will be) this is not a review of the atrocious doomsday alien invasion thriller from 2011. Instead this is director Joe Wright’s biographical wartime drama based on Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister. Quite a difference, right?

In early May of 1940 Hitler’s army has made major advances and now stands at the Belgian border preparing to push through in their efforts to conquer what remains of Europe. On May 9th a frustrated British Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain due to his weakness in the face of the rising Nazi threat.

DARKEST1

Behind the scenes Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and his followers are still pulling the political strings. With the backing of King George (played by a perfectly tempered Ben Mendelsohn), Chamberlain seeks to put in someone who will continue to push his agenda. But it becomes clear there is only one man the divided parties will accept – Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

By now there should be no one doubting Gary Oldman’s tremendous range. He’s played a drugged-out dirty cop, a Russian terrorist, and a corrupt U.S. congressman. He’s played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and now Winston Churchill. Thanks to the miracle of makeup and prosthetics as well as Oldman’s innate attention to detail, you instantly buy into this particular portrait of Churchill. The barely recognizable but thoroughly captivating Oldman delivers an Oscar-ripe performance that draws from his varied skill set.

The script is from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten whose previous work was the acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything”. Here he pours everything into his lead character. He gives Oldman plenty of opportunities to sink his teeth into the role without resorting to gimmicky “Awards-worthy” big moments. Also McCarten is smart enough not to overextend his story. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive biopic and the film’s tighter focus works.

DARKEST2

A good chunk of the movie highlights the political wrangling Churchill faced by his opposition who desperately wanted peace talks with Hitler. It begins to feel a bit drawn out but most of it is pretty fascinating. And I really enjoyed the personal moments we get especially between Churchill and his wife Clementine (wonderfully played by Kristin Scott Thomas). There is also the relationship between Churchill and Elizabeth Nel (Lily James), a young typist who eventually became his personal secretary. Their scenes are nicely done and offer a window into a different side of Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” maneuvers through Churchill’s appointment to Prime Minister, the political tensions that undoubtedly wore him down, the looming Nazi threat, and Operation Dynamo which saw the evacuation of over 300,000 troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. But the movie never loses sight of the personal side of this larger than life character. At the same time Joe Wright offers up compelling and timely lessons on conviction, persuasion, and the power of bipartisanship – all things our current governments could learn from.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Dark Tower”

Towerposter

For ten years a movie adaptation of Stephen King’s wildly popular “Dark Tower” series of novels has been in the works. An impressive carousel of big names have been linked to the project – directors J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard; actors Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, and Viggo Mortensen. But script issues and studio apprehension kept the project on the shelf.

That was until struggling Sony Pictures greenlit the project. More script rewrites were done (rarely a good sign) and Nikolaj Arcel was handed the directing reins. Things looked up with the casting of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. As it turns out “The Dark Tower” needed a lot more than star power to make it worth the wait.

tower1

As someone who hasn’t read the novels I expected there to be a lot I wouldn’t get. Turns out I was right. The screenwriting team attempts to make sense of things for know-nothings like me, but their efforts range from clunky to nonsensical. For what it’s worth we get some (not all that interesting) exposition which explains things a bit. Other times we get transitions and gaps that make no sense whatsoever. But in retrospect I’m not sure understanding this particular story would cure its ills.

From what I can understand the film is intended to be a direct sequel to the novels. It spans two ‘worlds’ – ours, which is mainly depicted by modern day New York, and Mid-World, a sci-fi Wild West-like parallel universe. It’s there that we meet a Gunslinger named Roland (Elba), the villainous Man in Black (McConaughey), and the mysterious Dark Tower – a structure set in the center of the universe that could end both worlds if destroyed. Elba is the protector, McConaughey wants to destroy it, and so on.

In New York a young boy (Tom Taylor) has visions of Mid-World and the looming threat of the tower’s destruction. He’s chased by monsters working for the Man in Black until he finds a portal to Mid-World where he meets up with Roland. He shares his visions and the two try to foil the Man in Black’s plans.

tower2

The film is rich with all sorts of goofy concoctions. There are creatures with fake human skin masquerading as New Yorkers. There is a massive weapon powered by psychic children. I could go on. That kind of silliness could be a bit more digestible if the movie didn’t take it all so seriously. Sure, there are a handful of attempts at humor, but not enough to overtake the serious tone. It doesn’t make this unwatchable, but it consistently fed my feeelings of disappointment.

There are moments of McConaughey doing McConaughey which can be kind of amusing, but ultimately he seems miscast. It doesn’t help that his character is nothing short of dreadful. Elba is good with what little he’s given and you could say he is a reminder of the potential this film had. I would like to see him again in this role with a substantially smarter, less convoluted story and more focused direction. I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. I can’t imagine another movie in this planned franchise seeing the light of day.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Dunkirk”

DUNKIRKPOSTER

For film lovers a new Christopher Nolan movie should be considered an event. Even for those not completely smitten with his body of work, there is no denying Nolan is an auteur with a bold, modern cinematic voice. He could accurately be called both a traditionalist and an innovator and this fascinating mixture finds its way into each of his productions.

A filmmaker guided by intuition and passion, Nolan has frequently revisited familiar themes all while extending himself across several genres – psychological crime thriller, neo-noir, superhero, brainy science fiction. There is a steady, reliable value to every movie he makes and while this statement can be debated, I’ve yet to see a ‘bad’ Nolan picture. That’s the track record he brings into a new genre with the historical war film “Dunkirk”.

dunkirk1

A military disaster trumped by an incredible display of human will and triumph, the story of Dunkirk is a World War 2 story unlike any other. Nolan himself has called it “the greatest story in human history”. In May of 1940 Germany invaded France. British troops were sent to aid the French but were pushed back to the English Channel by the heavily armored German forces. Nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers found themselves surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. England enacted Operation Dynamo as a means to rescue the boxed in troops. With time running out a call went out to civilian vessels (fishing boats, ferries, yachts, etc) to assist the Navy in the improbable evacuation amid waves of German air and sea attacks.

Nolan’s film immediately drops us into the fire. Aside from some early text, there is no setup or prologue of any sort. We are instantly among gunfire, nosediving fighter planes, and the screams of those men caught between their enemy and the equally threatening waters. And the film keeps us there through its remarkably lean 107 minutes. This is no exhaustive examination and you’ll get no war room banter or ‘meanwhile back at home’ segments. Nolan’s focus is on subjective storytelling therefore he has no interest in pulling us out of the intensity.

dunkirk1.2

To tell his story Nolan breaks the film into three story threads – one event, three intersecting timelines. The first takes place on land and a spans one week (it’s titled “The Mole” which references a long breakwater pier). Here we meet and follow a young soldier from the British Expeditionary Force (a fine debut performance from Fionn Whitehead). We get Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander and the highest ranking officer on the beach, James D’Arcy’s antsy but steadfast army colonel, and a handful of other characters crumbling under the weight of desperation.

The second story thread is titled “The Sea” and takes place within a single day. It places its main focus on an English civilian (superbly played by Mark Rylance) who answers the call to head to Dunkirk. He takes along his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local eager to help (Barry Keoghan). Without knowing the dangers ahead, the three sail straight into the mouth of war.

dunkirk5

The third story is called “The Air” and features some of the most stunning aerial photography ever put to film. It’s breathtaking cinema. Tom Hardy leads a group of three Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots tasked with protecting the soldiers below from German fighters and bombers. Their story spans only one hour yet it offers up some of the film’s most visceral edge-of-your-seat action.

The movie’s unconventional narrative structure weaves us back and forth between these three stories, connecting them at the most unexpected junctures. Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, among others have roles in the chaos as well. Nolan (who also wrote the script) places the entire emphasis on his characters’ experience. No backstories or in-depth relationship building. What he gives us is a harrowing survival story set within a framework of sustained suspense and intensity that rarely allows you time to catch your breath.

DUNKIRK3

“Dunkirk” remains grounded in reality throughout. You’ll find no war movie cliches or manufactured sentimentality. Nor does it seek to make judgements concerning the actions of its characters. Nolan composes a careful tension between cowardice and sense of duty but never lays blame or casts guilt. Instead he creates pressure cooker circumstances that pull out a range of genuine human responses. Then he allows his audience the room to make their own conclusions.

A bit more about the presentation. “Dunkirk” is a masterclass on the melding of old school visual techniques, modern film technology and an unmatched creative eye. A notorious proponent of film over digital, Nolan has honed his skills through several movies in preparation for this one.  It was shot on location with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, it contains a massive cast of extras and it was made with predominately all practical effects over CGI. And with 75% of the film shot in IMAX and the rest in 65mm large format stock, “Dunkirk” is a jaw-dropping spectacle that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Nolan once said “The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business.” “Dunkirk” shows that to be true.

dunkirk4

A spectacular sound design and one of the best Hans Zimmer scores to date makes “Dunkirk” a penetrating composition of image, sound, and music. It’s light but calculated use of dialogue demands that the focus remains on the terrifying events. But don’t miss the subtle emotional punches along the way. And in the end there is far more intimacy and feeling than you might expect.

The story of Dunkirk was a pivotal early moment in World War 2 and the Dunkirk spirit is something that has lived on through those most closely effected by it. Christopher Nolan brings it to the screen through an incredibly immersive and propulsive experience. This is an extraordinary cinematic journey made by a craftsman at the top of his game. I don’t use the word lightly, but “Dunkirk” is a modern masterpiece that evokes a range of feelings that personify why going to the movies is so special. Simply put, don’t miss your chance.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5-starss

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “Diabolique” (1955)

2017blindspot

Henri-Georges Clouzot is a name rarely mentioned among the great French filmmakers. In a way it’s understandable since Clouzot never had the career of a Truffaut, Bresson, Resnais, or Godard. He has never been considered as prominent or as influential. But his signature movies, most notably “Diabolique”, reveal a shrewd cinematic prowess often reserved for the most gifted of his craft.

Clouzot was known for his iron-fisted approach to filmmaking. He was hard on his cast and crew which often led to frustration and animosity. For Clouzot suffering on screen could best be depicted by a suffering cast. He’s been called a tyrannical director who was always angry and who let everyone know who was in charge of the production. But off the set he was different and revealed a surprisingly gentler side.

dio1

Practically all of Clouzot’s films toyed with the darker sides of human nature. Many of his characters were devious and manipulative. Much of his subject matter was dark and depraved, often drawn from his own troubled life experiences. It’s all personified in “Diabolique”, a twisted tale of abuse and betrayal that would fit perfectly among any of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

The story revolves around a truly messed up situation. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a boarding school for boys outside of Paris. His wife Christina (played by Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife at the time) actually owns the school but her serious heart ailment and his iron hand keeps her from running the place. To make things weirder, Michel’s mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) also works at the school. What could possibly go wrong?

dio2

But there’s a twist (one of many), Christina and Nicole are aware of each other and the roles they play in Michel’s life. Michel is a detestable man, not just due to his infidelity. He is demeaning and abusive to both women which sparks an unusual friendship between them. Eventually Christina and Nicole get their fill of Michel’s mistreatment and together they concoct the perfect crime to knock him off.

Clouzot co-wrote the screenplay which is based on a 1951 French novel that Alfred Hitchcock had intended to adapt. Clouzot beat Hitch to the screen rights and his film became a huge box office success. Another spike in the movie’s popularity would come a few years later when Véra Clouzot died of a heart ailment at age 46. But unlike the malicious, self-absorbed Michel from “Diabolique”, Clouzot was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He would only make one more film after his wife’s death.

dio3

“Diabolique” reveals so many layers as it maneuvers from a domestic drama to a psychological thriller. There are even distinct horror elements that show up the further the story spins out of control. There are a couple of particularly haunting scenes made more effective by Clouzot’s strong visual emphasis. But just as unsettling is Michel’s cruelty which the film never softens or tones down. Call it a collective ugliness that works really well.

Even with the moral muck of its story, “Diabolique” is a delight – a tense thriller boiling with suspense. It’s driven by three wonderful central performances and an artful approach by a director known for his adamant demands from his cast. For Clouzot projecting mood and emotion were pivotal in developing the darker tones of his subject matter. “Diabolique” shows just how effective his approach could be.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS