Posts Tagged indie film

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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Elephant

Year of release: 2003              Directed by Gus Van Sant.     Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

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It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.

I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.

A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.

I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.

I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.

Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.

As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.

Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.

 

Personal recommendation: F

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Year of Release: 2016     Directed by Stephen Cone. Starring Cole Doman, Pat Healy, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Joe Keery, Daniel Kyri, and Nina Ganet.

I did not grow up in a fundamentalist home. Religious home, certainly, but by no stretch could my parents or church community be called fundamentalist. Over the years, I have had enough occasional run-ins with fundamentalist Catholics that I could appreciate the critique of misguided Catholic fundamentalism in the recent Stations of the Cross. Evangelical fundamentalism, however, is something that I’ve only heard about through reading accounts of people who grew up in such a culture.

I mention this because it seems to me that some familiarity with Evangelical fundamentalism is essential to fully appreciate Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. As someone with very limited knowledge of such a culture, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party or even if the culture is totally fundamentalist, and thus I feel that my opinion regarding this film should probably be taken with some grain of salt.

That disclaimer aside, there were several aspects of the culture depicted in this film that I found interesting but also unbelievable. For instance, would the most conservative, religious Christian girl really wear the most revealing bikini at the pool party? Do conservative Christians who abhor homosexuality really see no problem whatsoever with masturbation or objectifying women as objects to fantasize over? And what adult (Christian or not) brings wine to a high school birthday party, especially when that party is for the pastor’s kid, even if the wine is just for the adults?

I am aware that there is a plot-related reason for all those incidents, but I still found them unbelievable and consequently distracting.

The basic premise of the film is that Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is celebrating his seventeenth birthday with a pool party thrown by his parents, during which he comes to term with his same sex attraction for one of his school friends. There’s a little bit of clash at the party between Henry’s secular school friends and his highly religious church friends, but most of the focus seems to be on the other characters: Henry’s best friend Gabe (Joe Keery) who desperately wants to get laid, Henry’s older sister Autumn (Nina Ganet) who’s home from college and struggling with doubts about how to apply her faith to her adult life, their mother who stands alone upset over something, an older family friend who believes the immodesty on display by the pool leads to sex-trafficking, her husband who is overly eager to drink the aforementioned wine, the troubled Bible camp advisor who may be gay, and another Bible camp advisor who along with his pregnant wife seems blissfully unaware of the tension brewing.

As can be seen, there are a lot of characters, and for an eighty minute movie, there are too many. I understand that many of these characters are suffering some sort of crisis, but to be dropped into the middle of their struggles with only a line or two of dialogue telling us the source of their troubles instead of showing us makes it difficult to fully appreciate the damage being wrought in this community.

Writer/director Stephen Cone is acutely aware of the harm that can result from believing the body is not a temple of the Holy Spirit, but instead something dirty to be ashamed of. The focus on the swimsuit clad actors drives the tension of that theme home strongly. Less strong is the critique of fundamentalist attitudes toward homosexuality, because other than four or five brief scenes that theme really isn’t discussed, and when it’s discussed the complex range of attitudes seemed grossly oversimplified.

One thing I really appreciated is that the teens’ dialogue is as unsophisticated as teenage discussion normally is, and the young actors inhabit their roles naturally and convincingly. Also, as a director, Cone can frame a scene with clarity and focus. I just wish his concise script had had that same clarity and focus.

 

Content Advisory: Quasi-explicit sexual banter between high school boys accompanied by masturbation, a fleeting sex scene between young adults, self harm inflicted by a razor, and some vulgar language.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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