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: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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CREDIT: Netflix

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Surprisingly, Perhaps Hilariously, Deadly Gunfire

Release Date: November 8, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/November 16, 2018 (Streaming on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a Buster Scruggs problem. That is to say: Buster’s not in it enough! That can be the trouble with anthology films in which no characters appear in more than one segment. This issue can be alleviated, at least somewhat, if there are multiple memorable roles. But when Tim Blake Nelson saunters into town in his white cowboy suit, guitar in tow, he immediately wins us over with his storytelling aplomb, extreme self-confidence, and superhuman marksmanship. As Buster’s is the first story, he sets a rollicking, self-aware tone that makes us want to spend as much time with him as possible. Alas, it is not meant to be. But surely, he could have been a narrator or a wandering troubadour throughout! As it is, though, his arrival brings us pleasure, while his quick departure only leaves us hungry for more.

The other segments are more scattershot, but if you believe that the Coen brothers’ droll humor belongs in a Western setting, then you should find enough to enjoy. The three chapters immediately following the titular kickoff – in which bank robber James Franco gets his comeuppance, Liam Neeson puts on a travelling show, and Tom Waits goes prospecting for gold, respectively – wrap up before they are able to have much of an impact. It gets better and deeper with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays a single frontierswoman who must summon an unexpected amount of independence, while also dealing with a surprising, but perhaps promising, marriage proposal. It’s actually quite sweet, but then a Coen-style cruel twist of fate swoops in, leaving you a little devastated but narratively satisfied. The concluding chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is more of a tone piece than anything else, with a group of strangers in a carriage on its way to somewhere resembling purgatory, or maybe even Hell. As one of the passengers, Tyne Daly is a force of nature to bring us home, but even she cannot quite protect us in this harsh landscape. It’s an otherworldly approach befitting filmmakers who are heavily influenced by the Old Testament God, and while I may find The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a minor Coen effort, it is not without plenty to chew over.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Recommended If You Like: Coen brothers comedy in general, but can deal with scattershot results

Grade: 3 out of 5 Color Plates

This Is a Movie Review: The Old Man & the Gun

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CREDIT: Eric Zachanowich/Twentieth Century Fox

Some people cannot help themselves, incorrigibly escaping from prison and robbing banks forevermore. Well, at least one person was like that. Actually, there have been plenty of career criminals in human history. But “incorrigible” usually isn’t the right word to describe most of them. It is, however, a perfect fit for Forrest Tucker, who was known for charming the heck out of bank tellers as he flashed his gun at them.

There are the singular characters like Tucker, and then there are the weavers of tales like David Lowery, who writes and directs Tucker’s story in The Old Man & the Gun. He wisely casts Robert Redford as the ultimate Robert Redford-type and commissions Daniel Hart to craft a breezy, jazzy score, and it all makes for a perfectly fine way to transport yourself for an afternoon.

I give The Old Man & the Gun 20 Diner Dates out of 25 Prison Escapes.