Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ Hotel Transylvania 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dracula and his friends try to bring out the monster in his half human, half vampire grandson in order to keep Mavis from leaving the hotel.

Stars: Adam Sandler, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Kevin James, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Mel Brooks, Fran Drescher, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: As a kid growing up watching Saturday morning cartoons I was more drawn to the adventures of Scooby-Doo than some of the more younger-skewing fare.  The best of the best, though, was when the Scooby-Doo episode would be extra-long or even a full length feature ala Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf or my personal favorite Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School.  So when the original Hotel Transylvania was released in 2012 I wasn’t all that surprised that I warmed to its silly, spooky charms with little resistance from my inner critic.

Three years later the inevitable sequel is released and it’s one of those rare instances where a second outing inches slightly above its predecessor in the fun factor.  Yes, it’s pretty much a retread of the original film with the central message of “Be yourself” reiterated often throughout the trim 89 minutes, but it’s all in the delivery and that’s where the film really takes off.

To recap the first film, Dracula (Adam Sandler, Blended) runs a hotel that caters to all manners of ghouls, ghosts, & monsters and is overprotective of his growing daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez).  When human Jonathan (Andy Samberg, The To Do List) happens into the hotel lobby and catches the eye of Mavis, hilarity ensues as Dracula tries to keep the two lovebirds apart.

Picking up right when the original left off, the film opens with (spoiler alert!) the wedding of Mavis and Jonathan, followed by the birth of their firstborn son Dennis who sports the kind of luscious ginger curls that would make Little Orphan Annie salivate.  The Count becomes a doting grandpa, even as he grows more concerned by the day that little Dennis may not get his fangs and could be more human than monster.  So when Mavis and Jonathan take a trip to visit his family, the Count sets out to help the transformation along before it’s too late, bringing along friends Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Vacation, taking over for CeeLo Green), The Invisible Man (David Spade, Entourage), and the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi, Monsters University) on a throwback road trip for morbid support.

As was the case with our first stay in Hotel Transylvania, the gags come a mile a minute but there are less duds in this sequel.  It’s all good-natured (if slightly too scary) fun that has its heart in the right place.  It’s telling that Sandler seems to be more appealing and certainly livelier as an animated character than he has been lately with his string of ghastly live-action turkeys.  Across the board the voice talent is strong, with the exception of Megan Mullally (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) as Jonathan’s suburban mom.  Mullaly channels her alter ego from television’s Will and Grace for the hundredth time and even her brief appearance grates on the nerves.

For the slightly older set and adults that fondly remember those Saturday morning adventures with Scooby-Doo, Hotel Transylvania 2 may not be five star entertainment but it’s worth checking into.

Movie Review ~ Monsters University

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.

Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Back in 2001 when Monsters Inc. was released Disney/Pixar was riding high off of the boffo success of Toy Story 2 and looking for another megahit.  While Monsters Inc. lined the pockets of all involved, for me it was one of the lesser Pixar films (though I’d still rank it above Cars, Cars 2, A Bugs Life, and Ratatouille) and its not one I’ve revisited much in the following twelve years.

In the last decade Disney/Pixar has matured as a production company, creating and developing moving movies with a purpose and a richly beating heart that it proudly wears on its sleeve.  With films like Up, Wall*E, and Toy Story 3 the animators took just as much pride in tugging at our heartstrings as they did in tickling our funny bone.  2012 saw the release of Brave and though it went on to win the Oscar (somewhat surprisingly) for Best Animated Feature some naysayers felt that film was not so much a step back in progress but a standing of ground with forward motion.

It’s a year later and the next Disney/Pixar film is upon us and it wasn’t a film I was particularly chomping at the bit to see.  In the realm of sequels to their films I would have preferred a sequel to The Incredibles or Finding Nemo (I’ll get my wish in 2015 when Finding Dory arrives) over another visit with the scare makers who work at Monsters Inc.  I just didn’t think it was a film that was needed now.

Well it turns out I was wrong because instead of an outright sequel the filmmakers have made a prequel, following Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in their college years as they experience a monster of a college life at Monsters University.  The uptight, studious Mike clashes with the laid-back slacker Sulley and it’s only when their future in school is threatened that the two bond together to show what they’re really made of.  Working with a fraternity of misfit outcasts, can Mike and Sulley get back into the Scare Program at school by winning the annual Scare Games?

Monsters University finds the creative minds at Disney/Pixar firing on all cylinders as they bring to life the college experience with an explosion of colors, ideas, and comedic bits that nearly all land exactly where they’re supposed to.  Taking the awkward freshman process to new heights, director Dan Scanlan works with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson to create a fully developed array of characters that interact with our two lovable leads in a series of honestly hysterical situation.  Everything on screen looks unique and thought-out…carefully planned for maximum effect.

For fans of the original film there’s a lot of nicely placed foreshadowing in place and certain major players from the first movie pop up here and there as secondary characters.  I wished I had watched the first film again before seeing this because I feel I’d have found several more of these moments that hint at what’s to come.

Returning voice talents Crystal (Parental Guidance) and Goodman (Argo, Flight, Arachnophobia) are top notch here, conveying a youthful exuberance without sacrificing the wise charm that made them such a good team in Monsters Inc.  Oscar winner Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, The Door) is pitch perfect as the imposing dean of Monsters University that takes a dislike to Mike and Sulley and others such as Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, The To-Do List), John Krasinski (Promised Land) and Steve Buscemi (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) have solid contributions.

What I’ve always appreciated about Disney/Pixar films are how economical they are…there’s rarely something on screen that isn’t engaging or interesting and when the film needs to make a point or highlight a lesson all of that extra business is pulled back to let the story shine through.  This is a film filled with larger than life characters and big laughs…a high water mark for all involved.  I found it better than the original because it makes more of an emotional connection to the audience with its themes of acceptance and finding value in others.

In the rash of summer movies that are about to be unleashed, Monsters University was nowhere near the top of my list of anticipated flicks.  Like a recurring theme in the film though, it’s important that I acknowledge that I was wrong and to say that I was surprised that the film surprised me as much as it did.  It’s a winning combination of creativity and talent that’s certain to entertain.  Enroll in Monsters University pronto and experience college life at its funniest finest.

Movie Review ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a street magician’s stunt begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act – and their friendship – by staging their own daring stunt

Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey, Jay Mohr, Michael Bully Herbig

Director: Don Scardino

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s debatable but I’d argue that the best sleight of hand that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone performs is making laughs vanish for 110 minutes.  In my review of the trailer for the comedy, I predicted that the film was “either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion” and while the movie isn’t a total write-off thanks to a few decent performances, it’s a largely forgettable film that vanishes from memory before you reach your car.

Though star Carell has done fairly well so far in his film career, he’s not known for taking on any roles that offer any real stretch opportunities.  I enjoyed his work in Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love but his work here falls into the Evan Almighty and Get Smart area…that is to say buffoonery.  In Wonderstone he’s one half of a Las Vegas magic act that seems to be sending up Siegfried and Roy grandiosity and David Copperfield (who also cameos) illusion. 

When we meet the younger Wonderstone in an enjoyable prologue, he’s a bullied child with an absentee mother who has him bake his own birthday cake.  After he receives a Rance Howard Magic Kit, he finds his passion and a partner in Anton – soon they are headlining their own show in Vegas and over the next decade they rake in the audiences along with the dough.  Trouble is, their act is stale and with a new generation wanting more bang for their buck their show becomes old hat.  It doesn’t help that Burt has become a misogynistic d-bag and Anton (a woefully untapped Buscemi) his punching bag.

For a boy that was bullied so much as a child, it’s an odd transition to have Burt become so unloving and harsh to his friends that support him.  It’s also not very fun to watch as Carell spends the first half of the movie with a put-upon snooty-toot accent and an array of sequined costumes.  When Burt and Anton find themselves without a show and not on speaking terms, Burt takes a job at a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers and that’s where he meets his idol since childhood…Rance Howard. 

As Rance, Arkin pretty much walks away with the movie as he is prone to do (and get Oscar nominated like he did in Argo) when given a character he can do something with.  Though thinly written, Arkin puts a nice shine on the grizzled magician to provide the film with its most dependable laughs.  The same can’t be said for Carrey as a Criss Angel/David Blaine style street magician whose tricks/stunts become more grotesque and dangerous as the movie progresses.  On complete auto-pilot, Carrey resurrects his Ace Ventura mannerisms to decidedly ho-hum results. 

Wilde is so shoe-horned into this film I’m wondering if her entire character wasn’t added after the film was completed to give Carell a ludicrous love interest.  Only called upon to say some of the more straight-forward dialogue that other characters couldn’t say, Wilde is totally lost at sea and knows it.  Gandolfini’s meatball head has nearly been swallowed by his shoulders and Mohr turns in one of the least funny performances in a comedy ever.

I have a quick note about the magic in the film.  I still hold to the belief that magic in movies is incredibly hard to pull off because most of us deal with a suspension of disbelief that prevents us from really buying into the magic we’re seeing on screen.  Though the film really isn’t about magic tricks, the few that are there are staged in such a way that indicates the filmmakers want us to think they’ve pulled off a great trick…when they really just positioned the camera in such a way that we can’t see what’s really happening. 

Director Scardino is known for directing television series and hasn’t made a feature film in over a decade, made painfully obvious by a dramatic lack of any sort of pacing beyond half hour increments.  The film is probably twenty minutes too long and strains to reach an ending so unbelievable I kept waiting for it to be some elaborate dream sequence.  The script by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein feels a tad selfish…giving too much to Carell and ignoring some nice comedic opportunities (a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers has so much potential that is totally wasted…where are the old ladies in showgirl costumes??)

If you’re a Carell or Carrey fan chances are you’re looking forward to this one and I say more power to you.  You’ll probably get what you came for but nothing more…sometimes that’s enough.  For this reviewer, I wish the filmmakers could hvae Zim Zala-Bim-ed their way into a better movie.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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Synopsis: Magician Burt Wonderstone splits from his longtime stage partner after a guerrilla street magician steals their thunder. By spending some time with his boyhood idol, Burt looks to remember what made him love magic in the first place.

Release Date:  March 15, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s an example of a movie that’s either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion.  Judging from the preview, the jury’s still out on which direction it will go.  It certainly has a game cast that has the combined talents to make this iffy material work.  Speaking of the material, is it just me or does this seem like a rejected idea from a sketch on Saturday Night Live?  A director who hasn’t helmed a major motion picture guiding A-list stars always makes me pause – so here’s hoping that the screenplay by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) has the laughs in it that the trailer promises.