Posts Tagged comedy

The Dead Don’t Die

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Jim Jarmusch.      Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton.

“This is going to end badly.” That line quickly becomes a recurring punchline from Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), whose last name might be a subtle reference to the previous collaboration between Driver and Jim Jarmusch. In a film overflowing with meta jokes, it’s difficult to overlook such a similarity. It’s also a bold choice for a repeated line, since it will give plenty of fodder to critics who dislike The Dead Don’t Die.

According to IMDB trivia, Tilda Swinton gave Jarmusch the idea for a zombie film while they were working on his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like that film redefined the conventions of vampire films in service of a story focused on the role of art and relationships in a polluted world that does not value the good, true and beautiful, The Dead Don’t Die redefines the conventions of zombie films in service of a story focused on surviving in a world that is literally turning into Hell.

The Dead Don’t Die is certainly more cynical than Only Lovers Left Alive, but it is an apocalyptic film taking place in a world that has dug too deep down the rabbit hole of its own destruction. It also was made five years later than Jarmusch’s earlier film, and the world has now seen a racist, bullying fascist use his office to roll back environmental protections, lock children in cages, and peddle countless lies as “facts” every day.

If there’s any question as to whether Jarmusch intends to skewer America’s current administration and its supporters, Steve Buscemi plays a racist farmer who wears a red baseball cap with the words, “Keep America white again.”

Jarmusch is clearly disgusted by the state of American politics, but he doesn’t let his disgust give way to anger. Instead he channels it into brilliantly exploiting the fine, fine line between horror and comedy, ruthlessly highlighting the absurdity of a world choosing to endanger its own existence. Similar to Aronofsky’s Noah, which showed an apocalypse that resulted from humankind’s destruction of all creation, The Dead Don’t Die shows an apocalypse that results from polar fracking, which knocks the earth off its axis, changing its rotation, which in turn alters day and night lengths, which enables the dead to rise. How could such a scenario end other than badly?

The inevitably of the movie’s conclusion enables Jarmusch to play the resigned, deadpan, matter-of-fact humor for all it’s worth. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth a lot, especially with Chloë Sevigny’s everywoman Officer Mindy Morrison anchoring the normal human reactions to the horror. When Driver’s Officer Peterson tells Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) that the gruesome attack on the local diner owner was perpetrated by zombies, ghouls, the undead, the suggestion is as calmly met as if it were as common as a pack of wild animals.

The omniscience of Officer Peterson serves another greater purpose beyond the hilarious running punchline throughout the movie. Driver’s banter with Bill Murray whenever they’re driving is hilariously self-referential, and it culminates in a fantastic scene that underscores the purpose of art and the role of the artist. Even at its darkest, art holds a mirror up to the world, as the artist guides his creation down a path that hopefully gives us some understanding of the world as it as and as it should be.

Jarmusch homages other works of art as well, from Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead to Star Wars, all of which highlight in one way or another that this version of Centerville, PA is very much not as it should be. The person best prepared for the zombie apocalypse is Hermit Bob (another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits) who lives in the local woods and provides a running commentary on the action. His detachment from worldly materialism is his saving grace. Science fiction and samurai films both receive a tribute (and hilarious conclusion) through the town’s new mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Caleb Landy Jones plays a nerdy gas station attendant whose extensive horror film knowledge helps him and Hank (Danny Glover) fare slightly better than most of the other characters.

However, because the dead don’t die, as the theme song by Sturgill Simpson says, the film is obviously going to end badly. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of hope. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head. Whether that is intended as a call for impeachment or completely cutting off our dependence on fracking and other environmentally detrimental procedures is debatable. Either way, the metaphor clearly suggests the difficulty and necessity of ceasing the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants.

With a large cast of quickly developed characters, bizarre and extremely dry humor, strong political overtones, and deliberate avoidance of any zombie film tropes, The Dead Don’t Die is obviously going to be a strong cup of coffee that not everyone appreciates. Perhaps the best litmus test for enjoying it is this. We hear the title song play over the opening credits; two minutes later it comes on the radio, and Adam Driver explains it’s the theme song, so it’s familiar. If that strikes you as hilarious, the rest of Jarmusch’s self-aware, environmentally conscious zombie apocalypse should as well.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Missing Link

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chris Butler.        Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.

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Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.

With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.

Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.

The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:

  1. It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
  2. It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
  3. The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
  4. There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
  5. Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
  6. It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
  7. It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
  8. The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
  9. It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
  10. It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
  11. It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.

The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.

Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.

Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.

Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.

Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor.                   MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment

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The Favourite

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.          Starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, and James Smith.

The first time I watched The Favourite, around thirty minutes into it, I gasped and turned to the friends I was watching it with, unable to believe what I was hearing and seeing. The compiled score had begun employing an organ piece, one that I knew and loved: “Jesus Accepts His Suffering” from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen.

At this point in the plot, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) had decided to attempt suicide, because her sufferings were beyond endurance since her favourite lady in waiting, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), had left her alone for too long to run the state.

I cannot think of a more perfect musical commentary on the vanity, shallowness, and manipulative character of the Queen as portrayed here. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to love this film.

Given my past experiences with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, my love for The Favourite is surprising. Dogtooth remains one of the five worst films I’ve ever seen; I hated it so much I resolved to skip The Lobster until two friends said it was their favorite film of 2015. After hating that, I was going to skip The Killing of a Sacred Deer until I acquired a screener by chance, so I watched it, and while it was the first time that I thought Lanthimos allowed his absurdism to be a little bit playful, I still found the overarching misanthropy tiring.

However, The Favourite is different. For one thing the outside influences of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara mitigates Lanthimos’ tendency to bludgeon his morbid jokes to a point well beyond death. The historical setting also makes this much easier to swallow as a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity and envy as depicted through the corruption of the early eighteenth-century British court.

The vanity of Queen Anne makes her a Lear-like figure, wanting to be loved but mistaking flattery for love. Her tragic arc mirrors his in a totally expected way. I even described this to a friend as King Lear retold as a dark comedy from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan. Here, those two characters are Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).

The defining characteristic of envy, as distinct from jealousy, is the inability to be happy for another’s good fortune. As the two ladies in waiting vie for the favouritism of the Queen, they become obsessed with their own success to the point that the other becomes a threat who must be eliminated. It’s a backstabbing story that Rachel Weisz has fittingly compared to All About Eve.

Instead of being set in a dog-eat-dog world of show business, The Favourite ruthlessly critiques the political world of Queen Anne’s court for being the same. The historical basis for the film is the transfer of power in Parliament from the Whigs to the Tories toward the end of her reign. England’s two-party system emerged during Queen Anne’s reign, and the inevitable reality of a two-party political system is that one side’s success means the other’s misfortune. The envy between the two women plays out on a less personal and more political level between the leader of the Whigs, Lord Godolphin (James Smith), and the leader of the Tories, Mister Harley (Nicholas Hoult), as both Sarah and Abigail form alliances to their advantages.

The reality of two women manipulating a power system designed by and for men is that they must work behind the scenes while letting the men think themselves still in charge. It takes a toll on the female characters, which can be seen by the absence of any Cordelia-like character in this twist on King Lear, since this sort of world has no place for such kindness, as Sarah warns Abigail in an early scene. The cost of navigating such a world comes to a climax when the results of Abigail’s nastiest act are crosscut with a debauched party among the foppish men of the court.

Naturally, sexuality features prominently into the attempts to control and use other people. In a world where the wisest choice is first and foremost staying on your own side, using people as sexual objects to get ahead makes perfect sense. Both Abigail and Sarah exploit the loneliness of Queen Anne through intimacy, compounding their envy. Abigail’s desperate state began because she was sold into an abusive marriage by her drunken father, and she reverses that fate through a second marriage which culminates in an hilariously loveless wedding night.

However, as caustic as the humor is throughout the film, there is real sympathy for all three women and their misfortunes. Queen Anne lost seventeen children, and Olivia Colman achieves incredible pathos in her portrayal of the monarch in the midst of the absurdity of the court. When Sarah is forced to reckon with the consequences of her envy, Rachel Weisz brilliantly depicts an unrepentant woman who has lost the only life she has known. As Emma Stone’s Abigail absorbs the manipulative mentality of the court, she transitions from wishing to better herself to harming others in a way that evokes pity for the other two women who grew up in such an environment.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the British history that forms the basic plot points of the story, the fantastic compiled score hints at the eventual outcome. Didascalies, a minimalist work by Luc Ferrari consisting of only two pitches occurs at two crucial moments, linking the characters who most deserve one another. Messiaen’s La Nativité features prominently whenever Queen Anne makes a decision that changes her relationship with her two ladies in waiting, usually because she believes she is the center of the universe. As a means of suggesting the one character who is gradually falling out of favour, three increasingly ominous organ pieces by J. S. Bach, who is notably different from the other composers, serve as underscoring for significant events affecting her.

There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and The Favourite walks both sides of it, acknowledging the absurdism of the decadent British court and its cruelty while not shying away from the destruction wrought by both.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Several sex scenes (mostly out of frame), nudity, harsh obscenities, gruesome aftermath of an injury, animal cruelty, and abusive behavior throughout.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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BlacKkKlansman

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Spike Lee.  Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.

About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.

Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)

It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.

Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.

At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.

For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.

If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.

Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.

Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.

Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.

There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Ol Parker.  Starring Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Andy Garcia, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

I admit, I groaned when I first saw the trailers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, positive that this was a colossally terrible idea. I didn’t think it would be worse than 2008’s Mamma Mia!, mostly because that would almost be a physical impossibility (unless a movie is Elephant or Forrest Gump). However, a sequel to one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen hardly seemed like a good idea, and that was before I finished watching the equally terrible trailer.

Somehow, against all odds, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again avoids most of the mistakes of the original and is a delightful, if silly and contrived, grandiose production.

The fatal flaws of the original film were too numerous to mention, but the three glaring ones were: the sloppy direction, camera use, and blocking; the bad mismatch of plot to song lyrics; and the repetitive monotony of song arrangements. Those are all fixed here.

Director Ol Parker has a much better sense of cinematic pacing than Phyllida Lloyd did in the 2008 film, and he edits each number to showcase the performers at their best. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography makes the Greek island resort look beautiful and naturally follows the performers through their song and dance routines.

Catherine Johnson, who wrote the original musical and the screenplay for the first film shares writing credit here with Parker and Richard Curtis. Perhaps the input from multiple sources helped with overlaying ABBA songs onto a paper-thin plot, or maybe having two timelines necessitated even simpler plots for which it was easier to find songs that sensibly fit. Whatever the reason, I was never wondering what the song lyrics had to do with the narrative, as I was for much of the first Mamma Mia!

I wrote an unpublished review of the first film. Rereading it now, I see one of my biggest complaints was that every song had the same predictable vocal arrangements, even if those made no sense based on where or when it was being sung. That happens here a tiny bit with “One of Us” as Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) reflect on a phone argument they just had as an invisible chorus joins their expressions of grief. However, with minimal suspension of disbelief, it is not hard to view those additional voices as imagined by the couple to amplify their emotions.

As to the other songs, every scenario seems like a logical place to burst into song, all the characters who are singing make sense, and the performances are all top notch. The rendition of the title song here is one of the best uses of a title song in any movie musical. A cameo from Cher culminates in a fantastic rendition of “Fernando” in which she dances with Andy Garcia resolving a plot twist that’s obvious from a mile away, but the scene is so perfectly executed it doesn’t matter. “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” return as the two big chorus numbers, roughly taking place where an act I and act II finale would occur in a stage musical.

The plot is as goofy and simplistic as would be expected, but the entire cast is having so much fun, and the film’s energy is purely focused on the rousing production numbers that it hardly matters. One shocking announcement that comes within the first fifteen minutes is Sophie’s mother Donna (Meryl Streep) died in the last year, and while it would have been nice to see Streep in more of the movie, she still has a great cameo appearance.

The film cuts smoothly between 1979 and presumably present day (although that timeline doesn’t add up, but who cares) as Sophie plans the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her mother, and as the young Donna (Lily James) makes a life for herself on the remote island. Donna of course meets and sleeps with Sophie’s three potential fathers, the identity of whom was the subject for the first film. The subsequent heartbreak of her three affairs merges with the present-day narrative in a surprisingly touching way along with the best crosscut Baptism sequence since The Godfather.

Lily James is sympathetic and endearing as the resilient and carefree college-grad Donna, and Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies provide great support and comic relief as her best friends Tanya and Rosie. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters reprise their roles from the first film, playing off Amanda Seyfried in a similar manner to their younger counterparts playing off Lily James.

Jukebox musicals are extremely difficult to pull of successfully, and the only truly great ones are Singin’ in the Rain and All That Jazz. While Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is not quite on that tier, I never thought I would write it’s probably the best one since those two, and if not that, it’s unquestionably the best one since Moulin Rouge.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Off-screen promiscuity and discussion thereof.                              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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