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Jim Jarmusch Gathers His Friends Together For Some Zombie Fun

Now playing at the theater near me:

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2019)


J
im Jarmusch is a very weird filmmaker. His dozen or so films, neither of which feel like they take place in the same world, nor even the same universe, are populated with oddball characters, awkward but real seeming moments, and humor so oblique that people are unsure whether to laugh at it or not.


But this time around, he’s taken those elements and added zombies, and the result is, again, oddball, awkward, and oblique, but, you know, with the difference of the threat of the undead.


Bill Murray, who heads what the film’s tag-line calls “the greatest zombie cast ever dissembled,” as Police Chief Cliff Robertson for the sleepy, small, and fictional town of Centerville, Ohio (the film was actually shot in Upstate New York). Chief Robertson’s second-in-command, is Officer Ronnie Petersen played by Adam Driver who previously starred in Jarmusch’s wonderfully whimsical PATERSON (2016).

Because of “polar fracking,” that earth has been thrown off its axis, daylight hours are screwed with, pets disappearing, and the rise of recently deceased townsfolk from the morgue and graveyard. “This is going to end badly,” Driver’s Office Petersen repeatedly says to his superior’s annoyance.

The local police are alerted to the zombie situation after a few folks are found dead at a diner. The corpses have been largely eaten (yes, the film is gory), as remarked upon by Chief Robertson, Officer Petersen, and Officer Minerva “Mindy” Morrison, played by the very nervous acting Chloë Sevigny, who enter one-by-one to look at the savaged victims.

Each cop (and Danny Glover as the hardware store owner who found the bodies) has the same reaction: “Is it the work of some kind of wild animal? Or several wild animals?” – a bit of a running gag.


The zombies responsible for the killings are played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (no relation to Adam), who are both Jarmusch veterans (respectively Pop in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, and Sara Driver in too many to list here). Also in the Jarmusch repertory company is Tilda Swinton (BROKEN FLOWERS, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL), as a funeral home attendant who wields a fast slashing samurai sword; Steve Buscemi (MYSTERY TRAIN, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES) as the crochety farmer that most of the townsfolk hate; Rosie Perez (NIGHT ON EARTH) as a newscaster who fills us in on what caused the zombie apocalypse; and rapper RZA (GHOST DOG, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES.


But Jarmusch’s stand-out player here has to be Tom Waits, who has appeared in several of the director’s best known works including DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN, and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (he also scored NIGHT ON EARTH). Here Waits portrays Hermit Bob, who lives in the woods, and watches the grisly events from afar, providing Waitsian commentary on what he sees. Over the course of the film, he more and more becomes the movie’s narrator.


As for the newcomers to Jarmusch land, we’ve got the aforementioned Glover, Caleb Landry Jones as nerdy gas station operator and pop culture peddler; Carol Kane (hard to believe she hasn’t been in a Jarmusch joint before) as a woman who dies and comes back to life chanting “Chardonnay,” and Selena Gomez, who happens to be travelling through town at the wrong time.


Oh, yeah – county artist Sturgill Simpson appears as a zombie dragging a guitar around who’s credited as “Guitar Zombie.” Simpson also contributed the title tune, which can be heard throughout, and is even referred to as “the theme song” by Driver’s character.


There are a few other meta moments like that as when Driver says he read the screenplay, and Murray says he only got his parts of it.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is far from Jarmusch’s best, but I enjoyed at quite a bit. Some of the dialogue, particularly the repeated lines reminded me of the Coen brothers circular wordplay, and I adored the laconic playfulness of many of its scenes. It’s a lark, but one with some solid laughs, and a stellar ensemble who are a lot of fun to watch.

Folks who don’t like zombie movies, even zombie comedies, may be turned off, but for those people who aren’t into decapitations that result in a bunch of black dust coming from the beheaded necks, bloody crime scenes with disgusting corpses, and in-your-face flesh-eating, I’ll just say that the great cast more than balances it out.


More later…

THE DEATH OF STALIN: History Repeats The Old Conceits

Opening today at a indie art house near me:

THE DEATH OF STALIN

(Dir. Armando Iannucci, 2017) 

Acidic political satire is what Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, Veep) does, and in his third feature, in which he takes on the absurdity of Stalinism, he nails it to the wall.

It’s a pretty ridiculous premise to have a cast of British and American actors playing historical Russian figures – i.e. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev – with none of them making any attempt at Russian accents, farcically fretting over how to handle the unexpected death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 Moscow, but somehow Iannucci pulls it all off with deliciously wicked abandon.

The film’s opening titles tell us that “For 20 years, Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces have imposed the great terror,” and “those on Stalin’s lists of ‘enemy’ names are arrested, exiled, or shot,” which are, to say the least, unusual statements for which to set up a comedy.

However, they well define the stakes at play that plague the Central Committee which includes Minister of Agriculture Khrushchev (the aforementioned Buscemi sporting a bald head), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor wearing a not so great toupee), First Deputy Premier Beria (Simon Russell Beale), NKVD Secret Police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python’s Michael Palin in his first proper film role since 1997’s FIERCE CREATURES).

While each of these men has feared being put on Stalin’s list before his passing, now they have to figure who will take his place through much bickering, some of which takes place while the body of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin, who has some lively moments in the first 15 minutes before he has a stroke) lies dying on the floor beneath them.

They are torn about getting a doctor because all of the best physicians are in the Gulag or dead because under suspicion of trying to poison Stalin, so they assemble a team of young and old doctors, who the dictator’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) says “look like mental patients.” Beria, the most evil and power hungry of all the fairly despicable characters (or caricatures) here, takes over making the lists, while he grooms the meek vain Malenkov to be Stalin’s sucessor, while Khrushchev is elected to take charge of Stalin’s funeral.

Also muddling up the worried water is Stalin’s drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend), who bursts in on the autopsy wielding a firearm (Khrushchev to Svetlana: “You father is dead, your brother is shooting a gun – it’s not fine, you’re right.”); and the arrogant appearance of Red Army Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who declares “What’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” upon his brash entrance.

Buscemi puts in one of his funniest performances, and I’m glad they didn’t replace Tambor (he’s been accused of sexual harassment, and was dropped from the show Transcendence) because he’s “on” too. I also love seeing Palin on the big screen again as the proceedings often recall the silly-smartness of Python parodies, and he has some priceless moments here.

Iannucci, who I was surprised to hear based this film on a graphic novel (Fabian Nury and Thierry Robin’s “The Death of Stalin,” 2017), very much carries this with a vibe that will be familiar to fans of his HBO show Veep, and his similarly toned BBC series The Thick of It (plus its resulting movie IN THE LOOP). His thing is to skewer the twisted ideology under which these selfishly foolish folks clamoring for power operate, and in scene after scene here he hilariously hits his targets.

“This is just f***ing wordplay!” Buscemi’s Khrushchev exasperatedly exclaims at one point, but THE DEATH OF STALIN is a lot more than just that. It’s timely because it deals with the Trumpean subjects of dictatorships, and the spreading of false narratives, but what really hits home is how this film wants us to laugh at how dark and scary things can get.

I’m reminded of that famous quote, attributed to George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Iannucci seems to be suggesting that when if history does repeat, we are doomed if we don’t laugh at it.


More later…