Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Dead Don't Die **** (2019)

Few filmmakers have deconstructed movie genres better than Jim Jarmusch. Whether it be the western with Dead Man, the vampire film in Only Lovers Left Alive, or mobster/samurai flick in Ghost Warrior - Jarmusch tells his stories in a minor key and The Dead Don't Die is no exception.

The film begins with the standard shots of a creepy graveyard. Chief Cliff (Bill Murray) and deputy Ronnie (Adam Driver) are investigating reports of stolen chickens. Murray and Driver are deadpan as a zoned out Andy Griffith and Barney Fife in the small town of Centerville, "a nice place to live." They're also vaguely aware they may exist in a horror movie. News reports start to come in of the earth's rotation being out of whack due to fracking, a rumor the energy department dismisses as alarmist.

Jarmusch regulars populate the film. Danny Glover runs the hardware store and Tilda Swinton goes full on mystical as the funeral home manager/martial arts master. Tom Waits appears as a philosophical Grizzly Adams and Steve Buscemi is the local MAGA man. The Americana here is still one of people having conversations in diners, cars, and gas stations. Centerville is the last place to get the news - receiving it through a huge RCA radio was an especially nice touch.

As a chamber piece The Dead Don't Pie has the feel of a 1950s screamers like The Blob or Them! George Romero's zombie films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are referenced several times in meaningful and clever ways. Driver's Deputy Ronnie states many times in a recurring joke, "this isn't going to end well." Welcome to 2019 America. 

The town is ill equipped and has no chance of stopping the zombie infestation. Centerville looks like a mid-century time warp with all of the old radios and cars featured on screen. The country music channel is the only one going. Everyone's clinging desperately to a sense of the past that's delusional and fictional. No one is looking to the future, everyone's lost in a retro time warp - not unlike the virtual world in Ready Player One. The line between the living and dead blurs in more ways than one.

Did I mention this a comedy? A more "dead on" than most of what passes for mainstream comedy these days. Jarmusch reminds the end of time will be a riot. The increasingly nihilistic tone of the in the last 20 minutes dares us to sit back and laugh at the macabre spectacle playing out. And stupid zombie movies. And stupid Americana. And stupid authority. The Dead Don't Die is a masterpiece in catharsis.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan story directed by Martin Scorsese **** (2019)

A spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese's 2005 film on Bob Dylan No Direction Home, Rolling Thunder Revue follows Dylan on his tour of the East Coast during the fall of 1975. Dylan had been on hiatus from touring since 1966, but in 1974 he came back and toured for a few months with the Band. Those shows were played in large venues and are captured on the Before the Flood live album. The Rolling Thunder Revue would push against the arena rock scene of the 1970s. Spontaneity, variety, and theatricality would be the guiding lights. Besides being a great film featuring amazing music and performance, Rolling Thunder Revue is a stunning vision on the possibilities of art in a time fraught with cynicism and despair.

Scorsese's film mimics the carnival atmosphere of the tour. By piling on layers to the mythology, Scorsese jumbles truth, fiction, and reality together into pop art. A lot of the footage was also used in the Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara which starred himself and his then wife Sara - who's mysteriously absent in Rolling Thunder. If Renaldo and Clara, a four hour art film, attempted to tell a complex love story in the style of a Dylan song like "Visions of Johanna", Rolling Thunder takes an alternate approach, inviting the audience into the party. The cipher Dylan of Renaldo is reconstituted into a new identity, a swashbuckling troubadour from either an idyllic past or a dystopic future. He's also the man who drives the bus.

Literary allusions populate the film. Allen Ginsberg, a founder of the Beat Movement, joined the tour as a Socrates watching his student overtake the teacher. Dylan and Ginsberg visit the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. While the symbolism of the scene may appear a little too on the nose, it was all in the spirit of the Revue. Excursions into kitsch America like the Mayflower Museum or Niagara Falls were done with same sentiment - taking in the entirety of the experience. The Revue evokes On the Road, but also the showbiz savvy of a Bob Hope or Freddie Blassie. 

The band Dylan assembled gave the tour a unique sound and style. Some had a history of within Dylan's orbit like Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Dylan infamously jilted Baez on camera in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, but they appear to have mended their relationship here. Others ended in the tour through happenstance. Dylan spotted violinist Scarlet Rivera on the street and invited her to come along. Patti Smith appears at a key moment, sort of providing the overture. Larry "Ratso" Sloman provides comic relief as the sycophantic Rolling Stone reporter. 

Robert Altman's Nashville would make a perfect double bill with Rolling Thunder. Released in 1975, Nashville is a panoramic view of America in the mid 1970s, specifically the country music scene as the Bicentennial beckoned. Ronee Blakely starred in the film and was also part of the Revue. Clearly Scorsese is paying tribute to Altman with all the references to his unverse in Rolling Thunder.

Rolling Thunder treads the line between being a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine and a poignant statement on art and politics in America then and now. Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever in his interview, shedding another layer of skin to reference his 1983 song "Jokerman" as he downplays the importance of the Revue. The film challenges anyone who watches not to be moved by the words and by the rock and roll. Music is the instrument to take on everything from corrosive power structures to the conflicts of the human heart. "Hurricane" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are achingly relevant, targeting the systems of injustice. The personal songs "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Tangled Up In Blue" project into the universal.

Dylan rearranged his material from the Sixties into anthemic rock and roll, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall" gets reworked into a fever dream vision; "Isis" a hallucinatory journey into  a land of pyramids of ice. Dylan's duets with Baez recaptured the spirit of the folk revival of the early Sixties. In a showstopping scene, Joni Mitchell performs a spellbinding version of "Coyote" with Dylan supporting her on guitar. Songs from the 1975 record Blood on the Tracks, also took on a new life through live performance. The energy from the Revue led to the recording of Desire, another classic album in the Dylan canon.

Narrative shenanigans aside, Rolling Thunder Revue points the way to new possibilities. In terms of profit the tour was not a success, while the second leg of the tour in 1976 played bigger venues, but excess and exhaustion set in. For a brief moment the possibilities and the ideal were in harmony - that's the magic the Rolling Thunder manages to conjure.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) **

Coming off of the first rate Kong: Skull Island from 2017, Godzilla: King of the Monsters returns to standard monster movie territory. The plotting and acting recall the 1970s disaster movies, but it never takes the complete left turn into camp. 

At the center of the film is a family, an estranged married couple played by Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga and their daughter Madison played Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame. Both parents work for Project Monarch, the secretive organization trying to unlock the mysteries of the monsters who live in the hollow earth. I feel sorry for the actors having to act in front of green screens (sure they were paid well). Kyle Chandler's emoting at all the chaos is especially strained. As a family they never get to have a real scene together, Brown has nothing to do but run around and yell the entire film.

The character actors allow for some levity. Ken Watanabe provides dignity as a lead scientist and Bradley Whitford makes Dad jokes. The rest of the b-movie cast (certainly not all) make the best of it.

Monsters from past Godzilla movies also appear including Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah - all in a deadly battle for supremacy. When Godzilla finally shows up (it takes awhile) I was underwhelmed, there's lots of roars and smashing buildings as one expects, but it all gets redundant. There's so much rain in the film. it's like watching it though a pair of foggy lenses. 

The underlying theme in the Monsters Universe is that humans are destroying the earth and a balance must be restored and humans have little say in the matter. That's a clever modern spin to put on these movies - and one worthy to explore in further films that aren't so concerned with half hearted spectacle.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Rocketman *** (2019)

The thing with rock bio pictures is that they already have a fantastic soundtrack embedded within them - that's half the battle. Music was the saving grace in Bohemian Rhapsody and many other pictures on the rock era. Rocketman is the equivalent of a greatest hits album, always satisfying, but never goes beyond the public's perception of the artist.

Taron Egerton stars as Elton John in a balanced and endearing performance. The film opens with his childhood and early training with the piano. His parents were conservative and distant in a tale told many times before. The best parts of these movies are the rise of the artist and that's the strongest part of Rocketman. Elton's partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) proved one of the most lucrative in pop music history. Their friendship feels like the only authentic relationship in the movie.

The scenes of rock star excess also feel mandatory. The cliche of the sad pop star all along in their mansion with a hangover after a night of debauchery. While the film deals with Elton's struggles with drug addiction and sexuality, we are once again treading on much covered territory. 

But to its credit the film takes a slightly surreal approach to fame, much like an astute pop song. I suspect Dexter Fletcher took some inspiration from Ken Russell's Tommy and Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes, both full on extravaganzas of glam rock and psychedelia. A touch of Fellini's 8 1/2 is thrown in for good measure.

Rocketman never holds back on playing the hits. In saying that I wish there had been a little more on the music itself. With Elton and Bernie as the central relationship, some more focus on the influences and creativity that went into crafting their music would've been welcome. John Lennon is mentioned, but we never got a scene of them performing together in Madison Square Garden. A fantastical representation of the 70s pop scene, Rocketman is the definition of a crowd pleaser.