Archive for September 2019

The Dead Don’t Die

September 15, 2019

Brody-DeadDontDie “The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.

Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.

The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA  — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)

Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.

Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.

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Booksmart

September 8, 2019

booksmart The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.

Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago. In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)

The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.

Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.

I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.

Brightburn

September 1, 2019

brightburn “I never said, ‘The superman exists, and he’s American.’ What I said was, ‘God exists, and he’s American.’” – A character in Alan Moore’s Watchmen

Well, what if Satan existed and he were American and a superman? The sensationally effective horror movie Brightburn meditates on that. A low-budget production by today’s standards, it’s horrifically violent at times — at least two bits made me gasp and/or avert my eyes, and this ain’t my first time at the gore-movie rodeo. The premise mashes up Superman’s origin story with that of Damien Thorn (of the Omen series). A young couple living on a farm in Kansas are trying for a baby. Soon enough, they find one — in a spaceship that crash-lands in the fields outside. The couple raise him as their own, and when he hits puberty he starts manifesting strange abilities and weird obsessions. Except that the abilities include flight and super-strength, and the obsessions boil down to an unearthly voice instructing him to “take the world.”

The notion of a superpowered being who’s more psycho than hero is not new, of course. Even discounting the throngs of supervillains in comics over the last 81 years, stories like Marshal Law, The One, the above-mentioned Watchmen, and The Boys (recently treated as an Amazon Prime series) have tackled the existential threat of creatures who are physically heightened but morally bankrupt. Brightburn just takes its Juvenalian-satirical approach directly to the source — the genesis of Clark Kent, raised as an unassuming, righteous farm boy who eventually leaves Smallville for Metropolis, where he’s needed more. Here, the Clark is a 12-year-old named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), and his parents are Tori (the ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks), an artist, and Kyle (David Denman), who works the land and raises chickens. When the chickens all turn up mutilated one night, a wolf is suspected. But it’s not a wolf.

If you agree to overlook a couple of plot infelicities, such as Brandon leaving a Zorro-style signature on his crimes and the cops somehow not figuring it out until far too late, Brightburn is an intelligently made thriller whose director, David Yarovesky (The Hive), knows how to draw out dread with silence and turn it up to 11 only when necessary. As Brandon starts to slip into homicidal madness — though it seems the spaceship hidden in the barn activates his demons in some way — he makes a creepy costume for himself, although I’m not sure if superheroes even exist as a fictional concept in the movie’s universe, so Brandon probably isn’t emulating any comic-book outfit. (Perhaps the spaceship gives him the costume design.) The violence, when it comes, is startlingly vicious and ugly, toying with the outer limits of an R rating. This movie about an alternate-world Superboy is decidedly not for children.

Is the story a metaphor for how a lonely, smart kid, bullied by peers and rejected by a cute girl, explodes into mass murder of the sort that’s become so grindingly familiar in recent years? Could be, but then stories like this predate our current horrors (and Brandon’s victims are mostly adults, anyway). Its commentary seems pointed more at the superhero-messiah narrative; during the end credits, an actor who turns up often in the work of this film’s producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) cameos as a raving conspiracy theorist who gives examples of other weird threats. This seems to promise sequels unfolding in a shared universe with Brightburn, though the film probably didn’t do well enough at the cash registers.

The problem is, this sort of thing is probably only good for one movie. It turns out that it’s roughly as difficult to write about a villain who can do anything as it is about a hero who can do anything. The structure becomes predictable, almost like a slasher film: Someone draws Brandon’s wrath, then spectacularly becomes an ex-someone. Maybe we should just be left to imagine the expansion of the Brightburn-verse. Not everything needs to be a franchise (although I won’t be surprised if an outfit like Dynamite or Avatar, specialists in profanely gory comics, puts out a Brightburn line). Though horror has its own needless-franchise problems, it’s better to think of Brightburn as supernatural, or übernatural, horror. If we’re being honest, the superhero genre — with its costumed gods who could as easily incinerate as save us, due to one frayed wire in their brain — should always have been horror, anyway.