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The zombie genre gets the Jim Jarmusch treatment with mild levels of success in The Dead Don’t Die, an often funny, sometimes scary and always amusing horror-comedy effort from the famed director.

Jarmusch has done horror before, most notably with his atmospheric vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive and, some could argue, the disturbing death-meditation Dead Man. His latest effort is as close to full-on satire as the director has ever come: The world is falling apart politically, socially and environmentally, and its inhabitants are too slow and dimwitted to really do anything about it.

Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny play sheriff Cliff and his deputies Ronnie and Mindy in a typical American town called Centerville. The town is severely laid back, with a typical day revolving around when to get coffee and donuts from the cultural hub, the local diner.

Then things go awry: Due to polar fracking, the Earth spins off its access, and the dead begin to rise. The days become longer; the electronic gadgets we rely upon go dead; and people start getting unsolicited neck bites from formerly live neighbors. Some characters, including those played by Murray and Driver, react in a way that is so disorganized and disconnected that they practically deserve to die.

This, perhaps, is a not-so-veiled statement about our current administration’s strange attitude toward global warming. Actually, there’s no doubt: Jarmusch hates Trump, and this is an anti-Trump zombie movie. Steve Buscemi plays a racist resident who dons a red and white MAGA hat, except his actually says “Make America White Again.”

The pacing of this movie is really slow … Jarmusch slow. In fact, the pacing is so slow that the lumbering George Romero-style zombies are almost sprinting compared to what is going on around them. Your ability to like this film depends very much upon your willingness to let the things happening onscreen linger and, in some cases, get dragged out.

The film does contain a moment of genuine terror when a zombie couple takes out two waitresses at the diner. The zombies feast upon the dying with—yes, I’ll reference the zombie master again—Romero-like goriness, right down to intestine-chomping. The moment is ultra-creepy because one of the victims does not die immediately, and she expresses her agony loudly. The zombies are played by Iggy Pop (often a Jarmusch collaborator) and Sara Driver as rock groupies with caffeine addictions. Live flesh is great when it comes to feasting, but what they really need is a good cup of joe, like many among the multitudes currently crowding Starbucks and indie cafes across our great nation.

Murray and Adam Driver are both very funny, with Murray’s Cliff representing the old-school, I’ve-had-enough-of-this-to-the-point-where-I-will-barely-react part of society, and Driver’s Ronnie providing the semi-hipster outlook. It is Ronnie who calmly declares that they are in the midst of an apocalypse while never losing his deadpan face. He’s a lot younger than the equally deadpan Cliff, and will probably catch up to Cliff’s level of disinterest very soon.

Other Jarmusch stalwarts include Tilda Swinton as a samurai-sword-wielding funeral-home director, a role only Swinton could play. Tom Waits (Down by Law) plays the mystic homeless guy commentating on Centerville’s demise, of course. Who else would he play?

I am a big fan of Jarmusch’s work, and even I couldn’t get past the pacing at times. A couple of days later, when I reflected upon the picture, it hit me that I liked the movie a lot more after I saw it than I did while watching it. His films tend to get that sort of delayed reaction out of me.

The Dead Don’t Die opens Friday, June 14, at the Century Theatres and XD at The River (71800 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

If you’ve been sitting around waiting for a Wes Anderson film featuring a stop-motion cast of animated dogs, influenced by Akira Kurosawa and the guys who made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … your wait is over!

Isle of Dogs is one of the strangest—and coolest—experiences you will have in a theater this year. Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation (after 2009’s excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox) is another visual masterpiece, and while the story goes a little flat for stretches, the film is visual splendor during its entire running time.

Two decades in the future, Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city, is ruled by the evil Mayor Kobayashi (the voice of Kunichi Nomura). Kobayashi is a cat person, and after the nation’s dogs come down with a strange strain of dog flu, all canines are banned to Trash Island to live out their days, scavenging through garbage and rumbling in the junkyards.

Kobayashi’s nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), misses his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sets out to find his beloved pet on Trash Island. The island is occupied by various dog gangs, one of them consisting of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Whether it’s live action or stop motion, you can count on Anderson’s usual gang of performers to show up—and welcome to the Wes Anderson party, Bryan Cranston!

There’s some squabbling among the gang members for leadership honors, with Rex often calling for votes that the rebel Chief always loses. When Atari shows up on the island, Chief winds up spending the most time with him—and he learns a little bit about bonding with a boy, as dogs do.

There’s a very sweet “love your dogs” message at the center of Anderson’s story, which he wrote with story contributions from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Nomura. This is one of the rare Anderson films in which neither Schwartzman nor Owen Wilson appear.

Of course, there’s a budding love story, with Chief coming across Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), who, unlike Chief the stray, has papers and can do tricks. (A bit in which Nutmeg reluctantly shows off a few tricks provides some of the film’s best laughs.)

The story elements are secondary to how damned good this movie looks. While Fantastic Mr. Fox had a better overall story, Isle of Dogs is, hands-down, the best-looking stop-motion-animation film ever. Each one of the dogs is a marvelous creation, and their human counterparts are just as amazing. Anderson and crew get extra credit for taking fight scenes and explosions to a new level through their use of what appears to be … cotton?

This is a Wes Anderson film, so, yes, you are going to see a stop-motion-animation kidney transplant with a bird’s-eye view. Hey, it wouldn’t be a PG-13 stop-motion Wes Anderson film without something like a detailed—yet somewhat tender—kidney transplant toward the end of it, right? The man is a beautiful nut.

Other voices that show up include Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono and, most notably, Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker, an American exchange student with a crush on Atari.

Much of the film is spoken in Japanese with no subtitles, but it’s never hard to understand what is going on. (Thankfully, all of the dog barks have been translated into English.)

With every passing second of this movie, I was thinking, “How the hell does Anderson even think this stuff up, let alone get it onscreen?” This movie is a feat that will never be duplicated. I seriously doubt anybody in the future will make a movie that reminds us of Isle of Dogs. It’s off in its own, unique cinematic zone.

Isle of Dogs is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Joon-ho Bong, the purveyor of spectacularly wacky cinematic things (The Host, Snowpiercer), has delivered to Netflix Okja, perhaps his wackiest film yet: It’s a tale about a future world in which meat is scarce, so huge pigs are biogenetically engineered for slaughter.

The title character is a prized, giant animal raised in the mountains by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a young girl who thinks Okja is her pet. She’s oblivious to the fact that Okja’s days are numbered, so when an envoy for a large corporation (Jake Gyllenhaal, going completely nuts here) shows up and takes Okja away, Mija flies into action—and the bizarre adventure begins.

Paul Dano, one of the kings of movie weirdness, chips in as the leader of an animal-rescue corps that includes Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) and Lily Collins. Following up her collaboration with Bong on Snowpiercer is Tilda Swinton, playing twins (as she did in Hail, Caesar!)—two evil sisters running the corporation that produced Okja.

The movie mixes absurd laughs with mayhem, and the cast is great. Like films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Babe before it, this movie tries to shine a light on the cruel treatment of animals—and perhaps get you to pass on the bacon the next time you are at Denny’s.

Okja is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Doctor Strange is certainly one of the weirder Marvel movies, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the title character, a sorcerer who can cast spells and slip through passageways in time.

The film is an origin story, showing how Strange loses his surgeon’s hands in an accident, travels to India and learns about the mystical arts from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). I have to admit … I didn’t always follow exactly what was going on, and I found some stretches a little convoluted and boring. But when the movie soars, it soars high, and Cumberbatch winds up being a decent choice for the role, even with his weird American accent.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) seemed like an odd choice for a Marvel movie considering his horror-film pedigree, but he acquits himself nicely. The movie often plays like a Matrix/Inception mash-up with a little bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon thrown in for good measure. The special effects are first-rate.

Doctor Strange is a bit of an oddball character, and he’s supposed to factor into future Avengers movies. I’ll be curious to see how he fits into the mix with the likes of Ant-Man and Hawkeye.

Doctor Strange is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

So Hail, Caesar! is a film with virtually no plot, but it gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to adapt the styles of films from the ’40s and ’50s into their weirdo universe?

Hell yeah. Sign me up!

The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans (including myself) a little worried. Its release was moved out of the 2015 award season and dumped into February—usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic usually reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.

In truth, this movie probably will score the highest with diehard Coen fans—those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered writers’ block all the way back in 1991.

While there are obviously nods to Barton Fink, the film Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! features a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.

It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand $100,000 in ransom money.

Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in increasingly hilarious wardrobes), navigating the latest scandal of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.

The plot is paper-thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old-timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams-style pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly-type musicals and more. The film includes of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast. The movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.

The Coens have a way with making minor moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is easily one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. A close second is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s something wrong with you.

In a show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career-best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented—the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.

I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has not only delivered his best film in years; with Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s delivered the best vampire movie in decades.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are astonishingly good as Eve and Adam, married vampires temporarily living apart in Tangier and Detroit. They live off purchased blood rather than killing people, and years pass for them like days pass for us mortals. After a long stretch apart, Eve comes to Detroit for a visit, and needs to search for room to sleep among Adam’s antiquated stereo equipment and guitars. He dabbles in music writing when not contemplating suicide.

Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) unexpectedly shows up—and she brings trouble. Adam and Eve must hit the road, but their blood supply is dwindling—so they need to make big decisions about their next feed.

Jarmusch has a lot of fun with the format, even casting John Hurt as writer and supposed vampire Christopher Marlowe, who claims in this film to have written Hamlet. Adam and Eve have a sort of bemused nonchalance while coasting through eternity, although their behavior is decidedly human.

The film is also very funny and shot beautifully. It’s perhaps Jarmusch’s best since Dead Man.

Special Features: There’s a documentary about Jarmusch, deleted and extended scenes and a music video.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another unique, beautiful and quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him. The man has never made a bad movie—and this one stands as one of his best.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup).

Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, largely thanks to Fiennes, who nails every piece of dialogue. His is the best performance by any actor so far in 2014.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a-can’t miss film.

This is a remarkable, tremendously enjoyable achievement, and will stand as one of the year’s best films.

Special Features: Anderson films often get a rushed home-video release, which is later followed by a more-extensive package from the Criterion Collection. That seems to be the case here: This one features a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and little else.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another wholly unique, beautiful, quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in super-heavy makeup). Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a can’t-miss film.

There’s something so joyous and fun about the way Anderson makes movies. This is a remarkable, tremendous enjoyable achievement.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615); the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews