The Dead Don’t Die

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What a disappointment! What a waste of talent!

It is true that The Dead Don’t Die actually was the opening film of the 2019 Cannes Festival last month. It still stinks.

Who’s to blame? Jim Jarmusch. He wrote the script. He directed. He’s the guy responsible of the slow pace of the film’s feeble story. He’s the guy who is stingy with the funny stuff. For a “zombie comedy,” the laughs are scarce.

The cast includes people you know and like. Bill Murray is a police chief in the typical American small town of Centerville. Adam Driver is his partner. Chloe Sevigny is also on the force. Tilda Swinton is the new undertaker in town. Tom Waits is a local hermit. Also in the cast: Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, among other familiar faces.

The set-up: The world is in a minor panic after fracking messes with the earth’s rotation. This triggers, among other events, a return to the above ground world by the previously dead at the Centerville cemetery. It’s a decent framework for comedy storytelling but it never gets traction.

Sturgill Simpson’s theme song is played several times in the film. His song is okay but the running gag is weak.

Look, I’m sure people worked hard to make this movie. I respect their efforts. But The Dead Don’t Die is one you should wait for and watch via streaming or cable. Not worth the price of a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pet Sematary

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That delicious discomfort that drives us to watch scary movies! Hey, it’s a Stephen King story. Which means Pet Sematary has plenty of creepy elements to make an audience tingle with uneasiness.

Weird noises. Flickering lights. Doors that shouldn’t be opened but are opened anyway. Haunting flashbacks. A gory injury. A mysterious neighbor. And the discovery that a new home is nearby to a pet cemetery with a misspelled sign.

As with the recent film Us, a family unit of mom, dad, daughter and son pulls into a new house where all seems idyllic. Also, as in Us, the mom has dark memories of a frightening episode of her life.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are parents to Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Louie Lavoie). The crusty neighbor is Jud (John Lithgow).

The new home is on the edge of the woods, on the edge of a small town in Maine. In short order, Ellie takes a walk into the woods to check out the pet cemetery and the strange wall of tree branches where she has her first encounter with Jud.

When the family’s cat dies, Jud leads Louis to a burial ground beyond that wall. The cat’s interment sets off the events that lead to some grisly outcomes.

Does Pet Sematary break new ground in filmmaking? No. But co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have constructed an entertaining 100 or so minutes of scary, suspenseful storytelling. And it’s always fun to see John Lithgow onscreen.

Don’t expect a revelation. Or a classic. But the newest version of this Pet Sematary, sourced from Stephen King’s book, is good, creepy fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mustang

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Horses are magnificent creatures. Like humans, they can be out of control. Wild.

In The Mustang, men who are behind bars in a Nevada state prison are given the opportunity to help tame wild mustangs. Like the men, the mustangs have been herded into pens.

Roman Coleman (Mattias Schoenaerts) is an angry, violent inmate. He’s had time in solitary. He tells the prison therapist (Connie Britton), “I’m not good with people.”

When given the chance to work in the prison’s horse program, his first days are spent shoveling manure. Later, with guidance from the program’s crusty leader Myles (Bruce Dern), he learns techniques to calm the horses.

And, of course, Roman’s process parallels that of the magnificent creatures.

But The Mustang layers more elements atop this simple story of reform and redemption. Along with interactions with the horses and his fellow inmates, Roman has several visits from his daughter Martha (Gideon Aldon). He even makes a sort of friend when fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) helps him handle the horses.

He expresses regret to Martha for his violence that damaged her mother. He listens as Martha talks of caring for her mother after the incident. He sits in a group therapy session with the therapist and hears that other prisoners had similar violent outbursts that led them to prison. He begins to communicate and show a bit of humanity.

The Mustang is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She opens the movie with beauty shots of mustangs running wild on the open range in Nevada.

The Mustang offers more than just another tale of a bad guy revealing his good side and being capable of empathy. It shows the grisly existence of prison. It also shows how a person may relate better to an animal than to another human being.

 

Us

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Weird things can happen on vacation. Many of us have stories we could tell.

None as weird though as the tale of the Wilsons, a typical American family on a typical getaway to a cabin in the woods. Their vacation is interrupted by an odd quartet of dead ringers for each of them, in red jumpsuits. These menacing dopplegangers unleash a night of terror and violence.

Writer/director Jordan Peele has crafted another winning film. Us is a suspense thriller with plot elements that will have you thinking and rethinking about the story well after you leave the theater.

Us has laughs as well. Nothing as gutbustingly funny as the best Key and Peele bits on Comedy Central, but enough to take a bit of the edge off at timely intervals.

The mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), has a backstory which is told in the film’s opening segment. Her memory of a scary time in a funhouse from childhood causes her to have qualms about going to Santa Cruz beach with the family. But her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cajoles her and the kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) into a day at the shore.

At the beach, they hang with family friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The dads have a cordial visit, but Adelaide’s nervousness inhibits any meaningful mom talk with Mrs. Tyler. When Jason briefly disappears, Adelaide freaks out until he is found. Then when the Wilsons get home that the real horror begins.

Nyong’o is the key player among the talented cast. As Adelaide’s doppleganger, she is the only one among that crew who can speak coherently, although in an unpleasant, distorted voice.

The Us soundtrack features the haunting opening song “Anthem” from composer Michael Abels as well as several tunes by pop artists ranging from Janelle Monae to the Beach Boys.

Yes, the film’s title is the name of our country: U.S. And when asked “who are you” Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans!” So you may impose whatever political message you wish. Or you can just choose to be entertained by a well-made film!

Interestingly, among those receiving special on-screen thanks at the end of the movie is Steven Spielberg. In a way, Us recalls stories Spielberg told in films like E.T. (director) and Poltergeist (story/script) of normal families facing extraordinary occurrences.

A recommendation: see this film sooner rather than later when spoilers are more likely to be freely shared online and in conversations with friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Men Want

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What Men Want takes the 2000 movie What Women Want and casts it with black lead actors, moves it from Chicago to Atlanta and rides with an R rating. (The Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romcom was PG-13.) The R is mainly for language but there’s also a bit of sex. However the sex is comedic, not erotic.

Taraji P. Henson as sports agent Ali Davis has tons of charisma. And talent. Her smile lights up the screen. Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame plays her dad. Tracy Morgan shows no signs of damage from the wreck a few years back that nearly killed him. Morgan plays the father of a college basketball star who the agency is trying to sign.

Ali’s romantic interest is bartender Will (Aldis Hodge). In a well-worn Hallmark Channel trope, he is a single dad, a widower with a cute kid.

Ali has a group of girlfriends (Phoebe Robinson, Wendy McClendon-Covey and Tamala Jones) who hire a psychic (Erykah Badu) for a party. The seer offers Ali a cup of tea, which Ali thinks is the cause of her new ability to read men’s minds. Ali’s friends are key figures in a wedding ceremony where Ali can’t keep her thoughts to herself. (Badu returns for a coda during the film’s closing credits.)

What Men Want plays for laughs but it is also a story of a black woman trying to achieve success in a man’s (mainly white guys) world. A script that with a few more laughs might’ve made What Me Want a slam-dunk smash. It’s a fun film but one that maybe should’ve been just a bit funnier.

As the setting is a sports agency, a handful of sports personalities have cameos: Shaq, Grant Hill, Mark Cuban, Adam Silver and Devonta Freeman. Also in the cast are Max Greenfield and Jason Jones as Ali’s agency co-workers.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

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World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

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Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

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The musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody are brilliant. Exciting. Thrilling. The biopic that surrounds the music is okay but not as special as trailers might have suggested.

Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) story follows that familiar showbiz path: obscurity, success, excess, debauchery, downfall and, finally, redemption. Whether it’s vital that an actor resemble the real-life person he/she is portraying can be debated, but Malek does look like Mercury, especially with the moustache.

But his prosthetic teeth eventually become distracting, almost like the ones Mike Myers wore in the Austin Powers movies.

Speaking of Myers, he plays a record exec who snubs the song Bohemian Rhapsody because of its length. Interestingly, the song is not performed in its entirety in the movie. Too long, maybe? (Snippets are heard.) The depiction of the recording of the song is one of the film’s highlights.

Myers’ casting appears to be payback for his giving the song new life in the 90s by using it in Wayne’s World.

I like Queen. I played their music on radio. I appreciated that they delivered a variety of sounds and styles in their tunes. The song Bohemian Rhapsody stands tall among the mostly tired and overplayed music genre known as “classic rock.”

Hardcore Queen fans will find much to like here. Boomers and Gen-Xers who thrived on Queen’s music will enjoy the nostalgia and may pick up unknown or unremembered tidbits about the band’s time in the sun. Millenials and Gen-Zers who adore Malek in Mr. Robot will want to check him out in this role.

With all those constituencies already titillated by the preview trailers, Bohemian Rhapsody should be a gorilla at the box office. Enjoy the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) is not an easy person to like. She lacks the social graces. She drinks to excess. She is a bit of a slob.

She does have writing talent. She’s a published author. When her career hits the skids, she turns to another kind of writing.

One might be prone to feel sorry for her. However, as her agent (Jane Curtin) and her ex-partner (Anna Deavere Smith) point out, her off-putting behavior is of her own doing. Isreal even admits she like cats more than she likes people.

Isreal’s scheme is to produce notes and letters she claims were written by now deceased literary figures. “Can you ever forgive me?” is the tagline on a note she crafts and presents as having come from Dorothy Parker. She sells these letters to bookstores who sell them to collectors.

[Sidebar: I went to my first baseball card show in Willow Grove PA in 1981 and saw autographed photos of big league ballplayers for sale. I noticed the signatures all looked alike. In 1998, Mark McGwire went into card shops around the US and found items alleged to have been autographed by him. He said they were not authentic. Two conclusions, which Isreal also reached: People are suckers and there is a lot of fake stuff out there.]

Isreal buys vintage typewriters and consults old printed matter to crib material for these letters. But she and her drinking buddy Jack (Richard Grant) make a couple of errors that lead to her getting caught by the feds for her fraudulent practice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features a different Melissa McCarthy. She’s not completely unfunny. Her character has a nasty sense of humor. But the energetic, vibrant, fearless McCarthy from her comedy roles is dialed way, way down. Her look is muted, plain. And her character is, as mentioned, a sad sack of a human. Is this a role that can net McCarthy an awards nomination? Stay tuned.

There’s a flash of the more familiar Melissa McCarthy when Isreal makes a statement to the judge during a court proceeding.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crowd-pleaser type of film. But for all who have appreciated Melissa McCarthy’s comedic work in movies and TV, this movie reveals that she definitely can handle a wider range of roles.

 

 

 

Mid 90s

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Jonah Hill is a good actor. Two Oscar nominations! His directorial debut Mid 90s, however, is a tedious slog. Run time is a mere 80 minutes; it just seems longer.

Mid 90s is a coming of age story centered on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who is physically abused by his older brother (Lucas Hedges) and mostly ignored by his single mom (Katherine Waterston).

Stevie is small and shy. He finds acceptance by a group of older teens who hang out at a skateboard shop. They become a sort of surrogate family for Steve. Stevie becomes a more skillful skateboarder. The older boys introduce Stevie to tobacco, weed, booze, sex and other temptations.

The aftermath of a climactic event reveals the gang’s true feelings for their younger friend. And that’s about it.

For some reason the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Narrow screen. Like certain old TV clips look on Youtube. Original music is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Jonah Hill also wrote the script. A meatier story line might’ve made Mid 90s a more memorable movie. The characters Hill has created are good. They deserve a better narrative.

Here’s hoping Jonah Hill polishes his directing talent and his next effort achieves some of the heights he’s reached with his acting ability.