Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Dead Don't Die


*Puts some Sturgill Simpson on Spotify*

In this plotless and super dry zom-com, Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloë Sevigny are small town cops in way over their heads when the dead come back to life... due to the Earth being thrown off its axis... due to fracking on the poles. It's always the fracking. Tom Waits as a woods-dwelling hobo man and a strange-acting Tilda Swinton seem to know what's going on though. And Adam seems to get it too: This is gonna end badly.

Doesn't mean you can't have a good time until then...

To say it's dry and has no plot isn't a criticism, though. I quite liked director Jim Jarmusch's last film (also with Adam Driver) Paterson, which was similarly dry and similarly without much happening plot-wise. Where that movie excels though, is in character. The Dead Don't Die is more about the zombies' character than the living people's. And that's where it falls apart for me. The movie wants to draw a parallel between the fictional zombies and real humans who are slogging through life, not much more than animated bodies. Sure; 90% of zombie movie in existence make that comparison. This movie only seems to believe that the only viable solution is to... not... be... human... anymore.

Like as humans we're doomed to be "zombies." And it's cool for a horror film to be fatalist of course, even a comic one, but it sure does put a lot of effort into showing the fate without showing the alternative. Of the three people who can "see behind the curtain" which is the role-model? If there is no role model, then how is the message expected to come across? There's a warning sermon, but no helpful applications offered. The characters are completely undeveloped to the point of self-awareness when the movie point-blank refuses to give one a backstory. Other times you think relationships and dynamics will be developed... but then the zombies intervene.

It's like the whole movie was a neat set up that ends before it ever gets going.

Still the cast is great fun as they have a competition over who can make their face the most dead-pan as they deliver punchlines. For my money, Adam Driver wins, but Bill Murray is never second-rate in a dry delivery either. The real problem with the comedy is that there simply isn't enough of it to go around. With such a big cast and so many irrelevant characters but a normal shortish run time, you barely get a taste of your favorite before the credits roll and it's all over. Plus, only about a third consists of comedy when there's a gruesome zombie murder quota to fill and a message to chuck across.

Overall it was very much what I expected so I was able to enjoy it as it came -- only one point was a surprise, and that was an element of the tone. It gave off an impression of being a project done out of a desire to goof around and have a little fun over trying to be a "real" movie. Basically no story, no character arcing; just a lot of wandering around and seeing where you are, then going off the rails to try something else. With that in mind, it's hard to blame it for not being a serious movie that plays by the rules. If it didn't even want or try to. It's not saying, "I'm great because I'm different"; it's saying, "I'm different because I was doing my thing," and never claims any level of greatness at all.

So I'll take what I enjoyed and forget the rest!

The Dead Don't Die has a reputation for being politically charged, and it's clearly made out of frustration over the current Presidency, but goes so far over the top that no particular ideology is required to enjoy. Fracking is an easy fictional troublemaker, and Steve Buscemi's hat hilariously and nonsensically reads, "Keep America White Again" as he awkwardly explains to Danny Glover that when he said the coffee was too black, he meant it was too strong. When he bites the dust, Tom Waits muses that you reap what you sow, and then takes a bite of a chicken he stole from him. Political satire? Or parody of political satire? Take it as you like.

When you're a movie character in the zombie apocalypse, you let off steam by killing zombie heads; when you're a film director, you do it by writing it into your movies starring your friends. When you're famous, the finished product gets into theaters. And when you're a film fan, you can see it, and maybe get a kick out of it too. It might end up badly, but even so, it's not the end of the world.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King


In a fairytale kingdom, there is a legend: if the princess doesn't marry by her 18th birthday, a troll will steal her and make her marry him. Well, the headstrong princess, Kristin (Eili Harboe), doesn't want to marry. And no one believes the legend anyway. With a pompous idiot Prince Fredrik (Allan Hyde) as her only option, she runs away. In the forest, she runs into Espen (Vebjørn Enger) and he gives her food. When he goes home to his father and brothers Per (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) and Pål (Elias Holmen Sørensen) with all the food eaten, we learn that he has a bad habit of being unable or unwilling to get anything done. His family leaves him home alone while they go hunting, and by morning the house has burned down. Oops.

About time I found another gem in the less-explored corners of Amazon Prime!

Then the pompous Prince Fredrik comes by asking if anyone's seen a beautiful girl. The king has offered a reward for her rescue: her hand, and half the kingdom to rule. Espen's father sends Per and Pål to search for her -- it's their only hope of saving their farm -- and he tells Espen to go and never come back. But Espen knows the girl he met was the princess. He thinks he can find her, and if he saves the farm, perhaps his father will forgive him for burning down the house; for being an Ash Lad. So, he sets off after his bothers, determined to do something for once, and determined not to mess it up. Grand and fantastic adventures ensue.

In a way it's very comparable with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And more the book than the film adaptation. Though there's no sailing, there's a similar fantasy flavor, and the adventures are done in little vignettes where the brothers get into a situation, get out, and then get into another. And they all have that exclusive fairytale quality -- helping an old woman whose long nose is stuck in the crack of a chopping block -- escaping enchantments -- finding a magical sword -- and map -- and of course dealing with Prince Fredrik. Eventually shifting into troll territory in the third act. Throughout, the brothers' relationship is explored as Per doubts Espen's ability. Slowly, he proves himself.

Turns out he's a pretty great adventurer!

That was the main highlight of the movie for me. Much of the traditionally styled plot you can see coming, but their dynamic propelled the whole story. Stories with that extra effort are great by themselves, and this movie couldn't have been the gem it is without that meaningful personal side. But in the end, if the surrounding world of production doesn't work, neither will the story, and it's the winning combination of those two sides that makes this flick worth its praise. The performances are entertaining and energetic, making the characters easy to love or hate (depending on intent), and the world is beautiful; saturated richly, and filmed on locations to give a sprawling sense of adventure.

The troll is kept hidden mostly but not in a blatant, we-don't-have-enough-money-to-show-it kind of way. The effects on it are noticeably CGI, but not any worse than, say, the giants in Jack the Giant Slayer, and the troll design has more personality, too, not looking like a mass of flat brown lumps. In short, this movie is made of good quality material. No, it's not a multi-million-dollar Disney project, but all that means is it doesn't look flat and dull or have its heart and soul green-screened out. Visually this movie is wonderful; bright and lovely, not flashy or overdone, just as real as possible. I love that. And ja, it's in Norwegian. I love that, too.

I found it in December but couldn't watch it until Amazon added an original, non-dubbed version. 

They just don't make satisfying fantasy films in America anymore. They're all scifi without the science, not magic and myths, or are too serious, or real-world, or trying to reinvent the genre. I've been feeling a horrible deficiency of highly adventurous fantasy -- the kind of fantasy that soars, and transports you, pure and clean and with a heartfelt message on the side -- and The Ash Lad fills that void to perfection. A grand, magical, and uplifting adventure.

And there's a sequel coming! I have no idea when it'll be available to me, but I anticipate the day with glee.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters


In this sequel to the 2014 Godzilla, the King is back -- here to protect the Earth yet again by fighting off even more Titans (giant monsters sleeping under the Earth). The human side is filled with the returning cast of Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe's scientists, and new faces in Bradley WhitfordCharles Dance, and Ziyi Zhang, and a new starring central family in Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown.

That roar = fingernails on a chalkboard x 1000. My ears are still ringing.

I would like to say that it doesn't matter what the humans are up to because we have epic monster battles to get to, but that isn't true. And I'd like to say that the apocalyptic rampaging is insignificant compared to the heart of the matter which is the human characters and their personal struggles -- but I can't say that either. This movie is a mixture, and both sides suffer for it. There's more of the monsters this time than in 2014, and that takes away from replicating the calculated character journeys, but they couldn't do away with the humans altogether, so their side is focused on often, though in a more going-through-the-motions, shorthanded style to allow for more destruction.

I always want to care more for the human characters in movies, and I did care for the central family here. They had a complex dynamic on page but the longer the film went on, the more plot holes opened up and began leaking soul everywhere. In the end they hang on but only just; and I liked the characters less in the end than in the beginning. I really wanted to like Kyle Chandler, doing his usual Distant Dad Who Cares bit, but so much of the significant actions are given to everyone else surrounding him. It makes sense when they're technically more capable, but if there was a human lead, he was it, and he got to be heroic in only one instance.

He was also in King Kong (2005) and this movie is in the same universe as Kong: Skull Island. Idk why I think that's cool.

Vera Farmiga got most of the character arcing, but her arc was too complicated for the movie to pull off in the time allotted, and it felt cheapened in the end. Millie's character wasn't much to speak of -- a normal brand of good -- but she brings so much natural energy to her every moment of screen time. She's a star. Or she would be, if they existed these days. She's the kind of person who doesn't need a unique character to disappear into -- she can carry a movie like a classic leading lady. Charles Dance is Charles Dance; excellent. Bradley Whitford is a scene-stealer, but when is her not? And Sally and Ken are given respectable focus but take too much away from others (like Kyle) and the film would've been improved without them.

Okay, the people are out of the way -- now for more monstrous things. High carnage has its thrilling moments but overall the result seems less than was promised. Four unique beasts is "better" than the last movie's three, but scaling back was necessary to prevent an incoherent mess. I saw this movie because I figured if I wanted to ever see it, a big screen would be ideal. But the epic visuals promised in the trailer were a let-down. Events take place disproportionately in the dark and rain, so the "epic" cinematography is monochromatic and distant, then the "in-the-battle" shots are hectic and grainy. And that gorgeous shot of Mothra under the waterfall? That's the extent of her looking beautiful. Elsewhere she glows so brightly it "over-exposes" the camera, or she doesn't glow at all and looks dull.

Shots of her glowing as she flies around are treated like the Second Coming, complete with hilarious angel choruses. Elsewhere in blatant yet confusing symbolism, we have this shot. 

The 2014 made everything dark and rainy too, but that movie was about ambiance, mystery, following the people as they follow the wake of the monsters, rarely having direct contact with them. I was bored by that film at times, but in retrospect I appreciate what it was trying to do. This movie attempts to course-correct -- they heard the 2014 was too slow-paced, so they speed things up, but they over-correct and fall into ridiculous territory too many times. Godzilla isn't some force of nature in creature form anymore, he's some kind of sentient being who does his noble duty of protecting the Earth because he's good and wise or something. He'll make expressions in this movie that make him almost humanoid. It weird and too much for me.

The coolest thing about the 2014 was the return to gritty realism. This movie keeps that in its physical aspects like the visuals and the dialogue and serious tone, but it's so over-the-top and silly in what happens, it all seems disingenuous. I have nothing against silly and over-blown monster madness (I loved Kong: Skull Island after all!) but this film doesn't embrace the silliness, it pretends that it's not. It's not the seriousness or the silliness that's a problem, but the dissonant combination that indicates this movie had no clear or determined vision for what it wanted to be.

Try to please everyone and you'll wind up being middling all-around. 

Another victim of catering to the common denominator of fans. If that's all it wanted, I certainly can't say anything against the plan. It's appealing enough to please those who want to be, and has enough moments of interest to keep those on the fence from frustration. The only problem is it may not make much of a profit at this rate, so perhaps cheap gratification on a big budget wasn't the best plan after all. Oh well, the Earth goes on turning. Fictionally, that may be all due to Godzilla, but in the real world, the King of the Monsters is just another passing blip -- to be enjoyed and forgotten.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Slaughterhouse Rulez


After careful consideration, I have decided that this movie would've been significantly improved by the inclusion of an exclamation mark in the title. Or, as others have pointed out, the words, "Edgar Wright" in the writing credits.

Not that I'd have minded his inclusion, but it's not THAT bad. It's just a British teen horror comedy... on the raunchy side.

It's easy to jump there since Edgar Wright's go-to comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both appear in this horror comedy in supporting roles, but really, this movie didn't need him to be involved; all it needed was to put a little more effort into the writing on its own. In the first scene it starts off strong -- introducing its lead in Don (Finn Cole), a middle-class teen from the North of England whose mother convinces him to attend a supremely posh private school that's he's inexplicably been accepted into. There's a briskness to this scene that suggests an urgency to get to the good stuff -- all the crazy, humorous horror the title promises.

And that's why it's weird that the movie doesn't actually get going until about 45 minutes in. And at that point the thing is almost half over. There's a lot of introductions; introducing the massive school, Don's pent-up roommate Will (Asa Butterfield), the headmaster (Michael Sheen), teachers, the school bully (Tom Rhys Harries) and the girl (Hermione Corfield) and the idea that something sinister is going on. But each one of these basically take up a whole scene each to introduce, and they invariably end with some kind of ominous hint of what's to come. We really wish it would just arrive already, but not all the time is wasted; we do get a good sense of all the characters relationships and the hierarchy of the school.

It's good stuff, just over-explained and over-dwelt on when we're here for mysterious horror goods.

Finally you think the horror will get going along with the introduction of the plot -- that some greedy company is fracking near the school and accidentally opens up a giant sinkhole. This is paired with a fantasy-horror type legend of dragons or monsters living in a labyrinth under the school. Cool. Then the movie piddles around some more. Around then is when people as dense as I am will finally pick up on the truth -- this movie doesn't actually have much of an idea for the meat of its events. It spends all its time avoiding the monsters and chasing down dead-end side-plots until it just can't put it off any longer.

Then it gives the action its best shot and it's only marginally better than the piddling. Because the piddling is piddling, sure, but it's still funny, and it's nice seeing the lead make friends and chase an out-of-his-league romance. Once the action starts everything else essentially is done and all that's left is lots of running around from one okay set piece to another, losing one or two people along the way, until the movie finds the finish line and sprints over it like it was scared of the monsters. Overall a bewildering pace, but rarely not amusing. On the cheaply budgeted side, but not noticeably held back by that.

Unless of course the movie was scared of the action because it couldn't pay for too much of it.

I think this movie could've used an exclamation mark in the title to convey a more accurate and low-grade vibe. But the "Rulez" with a 'Z' does a decent enough job at that. Movies with exclamation marks also seem to possess an extra boost of boldness, and in the end that's what this movie needed to sell itself. It did what it wanted and did it decently; I applaud and enjoyed it for that. But it did what it wanted while constantly promising something else -- something it never fully delivered. Either follow your own rulez or throw them completely out, I say. This sloppy British horror romp is a low-expectations-only kind of deal.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

Last month, all I saw was Detective Pikachu. It's was a good and fun time (review!). I haven't even gotten to my Netflix show The Rain yet, but I will. I skipped John Wick 3, Aladdin, and so far have skipped Godzilla too, but that just came out so we'll see.

The movie slump seems to be continuing into June. There are a few that look interesting and a few that I feel mildly obliged to see, but there's only one that I'm really excited for. And it's summer now, so that's kind of sad. Does anything look better to y'all than it does to me?

Dark Phoenix
In theaters June 7th; PG-13
Any chance this movie doesn't turn out to be anticlimactic? And now that the characters are destined to be rebooted and recast by Marvel there seems even less reason to be interested. It's a good thing, really. Most of these young actors are very good and extremely wasted on these chopped-up half-roles where they barely even are allowed to act. Since I've seen all the X-Man movies so far, and since I do like the cast, I'll be seeing this, probably even in theaters, but my expectations will be set low.

Katie Says Goodbye
Limited release and streaming June 7th; NR
Very likely to be very heavy on the mature content (the trailer is not appropriate for all audiences, just a warning) but I can't help but be intrigued. The tone is different, the plot seems sincere, and the cast of Olivia Cooke and Christopher Abbott sounds great. So I will keep an eye on it.

Men in Black International
In theaters June 14th; PG-13
Ugh. The trailer looks bad, and I didn't even like Thor Ragnarok, so there's very little appeal to this paring for me. That's all I guess.

The Dead Don't Die
Limited release June 14th; R
The first and only movie this month that I'm extremely excited for, and the only one I'm determined to see ASAP. Adam Driver. BIll Murray. Low-key comedy. Zombies. Sold. Sold, sold, and sold! Some people have been saying it's underwhelming, so maybe I'll wind up disappointed, but it's a risk I just plain HAVE to take because there's no way I'm passing this up.

Being Frank
Limited release June 14th; NR
Logan Miller finds out his dad is leading a double life and has two families. Hijinks ensue. The trailer starts out interesting but the longer it plays and the more it gives away the less it seems to be advertising a good movie... but I still kinda want to find out. I liked Logan in Escape Room earlier this year anyway, and it's a teen comedy -- does it really need to be great to be worth watching? I dunno, maybe.

Toy Story 4
In theaters June 21st; G
This whole thing is such a big, giant, "No thank you" for me that I didn't even want to watch the trailer. Because I won't be seeing it, but who am I to pass my biased "I saw these movies when I was a kid and now they're made for today's kids and that's dumb" opinions on people inclined to enjoy it? So yeah, live and let live. Thanks but no thanks Pixar, I'll wait for Onward.

Limited release June 21st; R
A movie I'm more interested in because of who's involved than out of being convinced by a trailer. The trailer makes it look oddly cheap to me, but it's Luc Besson, so maybe it'll be better than it looks. I did like his last movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and the lead girl here (Sasha Luss) is the same who played the alien princess in that movie via mo-cap. So that's cool. Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, and Cillian Murphy are also here and Cillian and Sasha appear to have a quiet competition going over whose eyes are bluer.

In theaters June 28th; PG-13
In this movie a Beatles fan hits his head and when he wakes up The Beatles don't exist anymore. But he still knows all their songs so he pretends to have written them himself and takes all the credit, throwing him into a classic rom-com trope of getting something good out of a giant lie that you know will eventually come crashing down but it'll be okay because he'll end up with the girl in the end -- and that girl is Lily James, so I'll watch the movie.

Limited release June 28th; PG-13
This is the most frustrating thing I've ever seen? Daisy Ridley as Opheilia. George MacKay as Hamlet. Tom Felton as Laertes. Clive Own as Claudius. Naomi Watts as Gertrude. I would watch this Hamlet adaptation in half a heartbeat. But it's not a Hamlet adaptation, it's a re-imagining. It's everything from Ophelia's perspective. Why? Beats me. I haven't seen all the actual Hamlet adaptations that I'd like to, so I don't want to bother with spin-off type material that likely doesn't include the lines Shakespeare wrote. But I probably will anyway at some point. And I'm sure I'll be disappointed.