The Dead Don’t Die

I’m going to be frank, I have never seen a film by Jim Jarmusch before. He has made a dozen films I have heard of and several that never crossed my radar. It was clear from the aesthetic I could see in promotional materials that his style is idiosyncratic and idyllic. I cannot say how representative the current film is of his movies, but I can say that if “The Dead Don’t Die” is typical, I don’t think I made a bad choice by avoiding his movies. It’s not that the film is bad, it is simply not in sync with the way I want my cinema experience to play out. I heard high praise for many of his other movies and if I come across them I might stop down and give them a try, but I will not be seeking them out.

The trailer for this film suggests a comedy full of dry wit and zombie action. They have done a good job selling this movie to an unsuspecting audience. The film’s sensibility is very different from the way it plays in the promotional material. This movie is slow moving, just like the zombies. The three main characters are so dead pan for most of the film that it is a relief when one of them finally shouts at another. This is the most passive group of police officers you will ever encounter. The zombie attacks are not particularly horrific, they are just perfunctory and slow. I suspect that what Jarmusch has done is made one of his character pieces and just hung it on the genre here to draw some interest. Well it worked, and now I have seen one of his movies.

Yes, it is a comedy, so you can expect some deconstruction of the genre as a way to develop humor, but it goes further than that. It feels as if the movie is mocking us for watching a horror film in the first place and then subverting our expectations of humor by isolating the jokes so far from anything else that is funny, that you may wonder if it really is supposed to be a comedy. There are so many “meta” moments in the film that feel like a put down rather than a wink or a nod. As the two police officers figure out what is going on by referencing the script and their lines, I began to feel left out rather than included in the joke. There are a few isolated laughs in the movie, but nothing is ever sustained for long and then there are huge passages of time where nothing seems to happen. Three kids driving in a car passing around an energy drink does nothing to enhance the story. Three other kids in a juvenile detention center appear several times in the movie and they do nothing interesting, have no relevance to the plot, and they disappear without any resolution. It certainly feels like something that would be part of an independent film project, but not the kind of independent film I’d want to go to.

The cast is one of the selling points of the film, it is large and packed with performers you might enjoy seeing on screen. The only ones who get much chance to do anything are Tilda Swinton and Adam Driver. In another one of those quirky moments that highlights that indeed the film maker himself is just a hipster from Cleveland, Swinton walks out of the story in an incongruous manner completely detached from the events of the story. The biggest laugh Adam Driver gets is when he shows up at a crime scene in his personal automobile. Meanwhile Steve Buscemi , has to play an exaggerated version of a Trump voter, Danny Glover finally is too old for this shit, and Carol Kane is a one word one joke cameo.

Maybe if you are a fan of the directors style, you will enjoy this film more than I did. I found the on the nose criticism of genre conventions to be off putting and the lack of pacing to be annoying. When the zombies do start to appear, the film picks up for half an hour or so, but then it meanders off onto paths that lead no where and a conclusion that is so self satisfying as to be a disappointment. That’s right, zombie movies usually end on a down note, so let’s ape that but make fun of it at the same time? I just didn’t care anymore. Marketing may make this film Jarmusch’s most successful box office result, but it is not a movie that will earn much love from those who see it under false expectations.

Hail, Ceasar!

I like Coen Brothers movies as much as the next person. I do think they have a sense of humor that fits their film making skills well, when there is a coherent plot driven story that has a solid end point in mind. When they have stretched out into comedy, they are a little more hit and miss. “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” are examples of their success with straight comedy, solid home runs. “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “The Lady Killers” are illustrations of a swing and a miss. Sticking with the baseball metaphor, “Hail, Caesar!” is a foul tip. It makes contact but never reaches the field of play enough to create any sense of it being an essential film.

The story, as it is, mostly follows the travails of Eddie Mannix, the “Head of Physical Production”, whatever that means , at Capital Pictures. This is the same real life character played by Bob Hoskins in “Hollywoodland” a decade ago. Instead a a sober and somewhat ominous figure as he was presented in that film, here as played by Josh Brolin, he is a guilt ridden workaholic who has doubts about the value of his job but does it extremely well. Although there are comic aspects to what goes on, Brolin never plays him as a fool, and it is the circus around him that provides most of the laughs. As straight man to a variety of insane people, Brolin still manages to be occasionally funny while remaining a realistic character. The same cannot be said for most of the other featured players.

Scarlett Johansson is barely in the film, and her character has almost no personality except for boredom. George Cloony seems to be reprising his role as a dimwit with delusions of deep thought like his character from “O’Brother”. His very last scene he actually does what a movie star should do, but the purpose is to subvert the moment for a laugh. Ralph Fiennes has one solid scene and then another where he is mostly background. Tilda Swinton is playing dual characters, who are basically the same person anyway, and the part requires no real talent except being bitchy and tall. Francis McDormand and Jonah Hill each have one scene, and neither of them is connected to the main story [Main story being a euphemism for “plot point used to sell the movie”] . This film is all over the place, it leaves the biggest stars struggling to find something to do and it never develops any sense of urgency.

It’s 1951, and the studio system can see the future, and so can a group of communist writers. Those forces clash against a background of studio intrigue, none of which seems to be particularly connected to anything else going on in the film. The location however does give us an opportunity to see some fun parodies of film making from the era. Alden Ehrenreich should be the breakout star of the movie. He plays a Singing cowboy star who is cast in a sophisticated drama and becomes incidentally tied up with the kidnapping plot highlighted in the trailer. He is quite good playing a guy out of his depths in some circumstances but at the top of the heap in others. Had his story been the centerpiece of the film, I think the movie would have held together a lot better. The other high point of the film is Channing Tatum, lampooning the star system with a turn as a movie hoofer with a secret. The dance number he stars in is the best moment in the movie, it is well staged, funny as heck and should get a laugh from all those who see homoeroticism in every 50s film.

I’m glad that artists as successful as the Cohen Brothers are, can take chances and work in different film genres and experiment. I just wish that this film had been more successful. There are several great scenes and good laughs, but it barely resembles a film and it is clearly full of indulgences that feel like someone is taking advantage of their position. I would never tell people to stay away, but unless you are a completest, you will be perfectly fine waiting for their next attempt. No one wants to be disappointed with a movie they chose to see and I think most people will find this film to be just that.