Movie Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ And Neither Does the Droll Energy in Jim Jarmusch’s Zombie Goof-Off

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CREDIT: Abbot Genser/Focus Features

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Austin Butler, Eszter Balint, Luka Sabbat, Larry Fessenden

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Ironic, But Visceral Zombie Violence

Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Limited)

Sometime around 2010, it was determined that it was every filmmaker’s God-given right to make their very own zombie movie. In the case of Jim Jarmusch, he was divinely matched with The Dead Don’t Die, a droll, occasionally fourth wall-breaking portrait of ravaged-by-the-undead small town life patrolled by Police Officers Bill Murray and Adam Driver. In a post-Shaun of the Dead world, The Dead Don’t Die is far from necessary, but it is sufficiently diverting. It adds an environmental wrinkle to the zombie mythos, as fracking is implied to be the culprit behind the upending of nature. If Jarmusch is crying out for us to protect the Earth, that warning is perhaps a little too late, considering how disastrous climate change has already become. But that’s no big deal (for the movie, that is – the planet is screwed), as he seems to have more goofball ideas on his mind anyway.

The zombie blood and guts are sufficiently hardcore, with the bodily fluids as wet and unleashed as the dialogue is dry and bottled-up. But the main attraction are not the ghouls so much as the characters and their unique ways of being human and/or inhuman. That is to say, while Tilda Swinton has badass sword skills as the town’s new undertaker, it’s more amusing that she gets to lean into a hardcore Scottish persona. This is the type of movie in which Selena Gomez tells Caleb Landry Jones, “Your film knowledge is impressive,” after he mentions some pretty basic info about George Romero, and then Larry Fessenden refers to Gomez and her friends who are passing through town as “hipsters from the city” and “hipsters with their irony” (the odds seem to be that they’re from Cleveland). If that sounds hilarious to you, you know who you are, and you can expect to mostly be satisfied, though you may (or may not) have issues with the shaggy, shambling plot structure.

The Dead Don’t Die is Recommended If You Like: Remaining at an ironic remove, but not being too-cool-for-school about it

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Diner Coffee Pots

This Is a Movie Review: Seeking Justice for a Cold Rape/Murder Case, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is the Timeliest Dark Comedy of 2017

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CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Željko Ivanek, Kathryn Newton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Cussing, Police Abuse, and Arson

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)

The release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not be any more timely. We are currently living in a moment unprecedented in terms of the rate at which prominent sexual harassers and abusers are being exposed. By putting up the titular billboard triptych calling out local law enforcement for its inability to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is instantly a symbol of this age. Unsurprisingly, she butts up against a fair deal of racism within the Ebbing police department. But that discrimination isn’t coming from Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, though he may be a bit hard-edged, is absolutely well-meaning; he so wishes he had physical evidence in the Hayes case. And the racist officer in question might actually have some good detective in him and maybe even some decent humanity.

Based on his track record, writer/director Martin McDonagh is not an obvious choice to stick the sensitive landing that Three Billboards pulls off. With In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he demonstrated his knack for understanding the foibles of humanity, especially when it comes to souls existentially cast adrift by the whims of fate. Such an approach would not be impossible for a film about an unsolved rape case, but it would be depressing. While McDonagh can be cutting, he is so for the laughs. It is not his bag to make his audience endlessly despair. Thus, while Three Billboards does feature plenty of his signature jabs, he ultimately re-calibrates his typical tone enough to make this effort truly uplifting.

The most astute trick that McDonagh pulls off involves the constant acknowledgement that individuals contain multitudes and are not easy to pin down, even in a story driven by something so obviously wrong as rape. Mildred’s crusade is righteous, but plenty of townspeople wish she would just go away. While much of that has to do with a tendency to defend the status quo, it is also due to her own prickly personality. But to be fair to her (and the movie certainly is), not many people have figured out how to insist upon justice while remaining kind. Willoughby receives the brunt of Mildred’s ire, and while he can be too heated for his own good, he knows what’s right. And because this movie is so generous to its characters, he has his own terminal cancer-fueled narrative. Also coming in hot is Mildred’s relationship with her ex-husband (John Hawkes), which turns especially nasty when it comes to his new much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving). But it turns out that he is with her less because she is a pretty young thing and more because she has instilled in him a Zen calm, noting that anger only begets more anger.
The evolution of Officer Jason Dixon illustrates that proposition best of all. On the page, his transformation might read as too transformational to be believed, even with a writer as skilled as McDonagh. But thanks to the chops of Sam Rockwell, his redemptive arc reads as perfectly natural. When we meet him, Dixon is frequently drunk, openly racist, and constantly abusing his power. But when relieved of his badge, he finds room to make amends, ultimately teaming up with Mildred to fulfill his duty as a decent person. In a world where evil acts continue to be perpetrated, it is nice to know that humanity can persist.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Recommended If You Like: Fargo, M*A*S*H, Groundhog Day

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Fat Dentists

This Is a Movie Review: The Tom Cruise-Starring Biopic ‘American Made’ is a Rollicking Indictment of Governmental Abuse of Power

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for High Stress Profanity and a Quick Sex Montage

Release Date: September 29, 2017

Did Barry Seal live the American Dream? The marks of such an achievement are all there. The former TWA pilot rose from relatively modest means, married a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright Olsen), had three beautiful kids, was enriched by his own government, used those riches to move his family into a huge plot of land, and now Tom Cruise is playing him in a biopic. But if this is indeed the American Dream, ideals are not immune to being warped by the harshness of reality. Spoiler alert for a true story: Barry dies at the end. He still manages to accrue an insane streak of good luck, and the deadliest parts of his story are filled with mythic iconography, but his example is a stark reminder that this country’s greatness is not always so straightforward as it purports to be.

As American Made portrays him, Seal is an opportunist, but the opportunities come straight to him, from sources that are pretty hard to say no to. A mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up out of the blue and offers him a deal to fly reconnaissance missions and then act as a courier to the Latin American political figures that the U.S. government covertly supports. His presence leads him into the clutches of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, who strongarm him into smuggling their product. You might think this would be the end of the road for Seal, but the U.S. is kinda-sorta allies with the Medellíns (anything to oppose the commies!).

Seal’s smuggling does attract the ire of just about every major American law enforcement agency, but he keeps sliding free. While the bulk of his work is illegal, it is also mostly government-sanctioned, even when the CIA erases his existence from their files. Ultimately, though, his government – the same one that made him very rich – hangs him out to dry. As the affairs in Latin America ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes unavoidably clear that the highest echelons of government are populated by international geopolitical criminals. And yet it is the Barry Seal’s of the world, who nominally remain private citizens, who bear the bulk of the suffering. True, he chooses to play his part and is not exactly the most upstanding person, but he is never really free to live as he pleases. His life looks pretty fun, but it is not hard to notice the gross abuse of power underneath that slick veneer.

With American Made and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman is now a specialist in subverting the aura of Tom Cruise. If you know nothing of the actor’s personal life, it is pretty much impossible not to be charmed by him. And even if you do know about the Scientology shenanigans and all the rest of it, he still might win you over a bit despite yourself. Cruise cranks the charm at full throttle to get Seal out of so many sticky situations, but it only works if the powers that be say so. American Made shows that his star still shines on but also that he (just like the myth of the American Dream) only endures because powers greater than any one individual allow it to.

American Made is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Re-evaluating Top Gun, Deconstructing Tom Cruise, Narcos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Kilos

This Is a Movie Review: Get Out

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Get Out did not have me getting out of my seat from fright, which is unsurprising because I generally don’t get too scared at horror movies. But I imagine most people will not be frightened, as its techniques are less about jump scares (though it does have those) or general dread than about mindbending. Its signature concept (“the sunken place”) is a killer example.

This is basically cultural appropriation as body horror. Knowing that it is from Jordan Peele makes it easy – and sensible – to say that this concept could have started as a comedy sketch that evolved into a fright flick. And indeed, as the reveal plays out, it is clear that this actually has been done as comedy before.

I have a slight problem with a couple of moments that are endemic to the evil genius genre, in which small mistakes inexplicably give the hero a fighting chance. But I don’t want to quibble too much, because this is a clever extreme dramatization of a real societal fear, which is what the best horror movies do.

I give Get Out 18 Awkwardly Casually Racist Remarks out of 20 Days.