A review of “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019)

“The Dead Don’t Die” indeed has the greatest zombie cast ever assembled.  Seriously, just look at that poster below.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the best zombie screenplay ever written, or the best direction ever seen in a zombie film.  This would-be classic was a surprisingly average viewing experience; I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

I almost feel guilty for feeling so unenthusiastic, because I like so many of these actors so much.  Bill Murray and Adam Driver actually are quite funny as the movie’s two torpid police officers; Chloe Sevigny makes them even funnier as their panicked straight man.  And the addition of Tilda Swinton’s zany Scottish samurai undertaker makes them the perfect comedic quartet.  (I think this is the first time I’ve seen Sevigny in a movie, as she mostly does arthouse films — including 2003’s ignominiously reviled “The Brown Bunny.”  And I had no idea that Driver was this talented, given his milquetoast turn as a villain in the most recent spate of “Star Wars” films.)  I honestly would love to see the four of these characters battle apocalyptic threats in a series of comedies — aliens, vampires, killer robots from the future … whatever.

Other big names shine here as well.  Tom Waits and Caleb Landry Jones are both surprisingly funny, delivering little bouts of quirky, laconic, character-driven dialogue in a film that seems intended as mashup between “Cannery Row” (1982) and the first two “Return of the Living Dead” films (1985, 1988).  (I first saw Jones as the creepy kid in 2010’s “The Last Exorcism;” I suspect that more of my friends will recognize him as Banshee from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.”)

The problem is this — although many of the characters are engaging, they populate a subdued, disconnected movie that is frequently quite slow.  Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s heart is in the right place — assembling this oddball ensemble cast for the mashup I mentioned above is actually a terrific idea.  But “The Dead Don’t Die” ultimately lacks punch, and even a tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy needs a minimum of tension.  The movie is a bit too lethargic to become the truly great film that the trailer led us to hope for.

Complicating matters is the fact that that several groups of characters follow story arcs that go nowhere — sometimes literally.  (Where did the kids from the juvenile detention center run off to?  Why were they included at all?  Not much happens to them and they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.)  This movie often felt like a number of comedy skits stitched together — some were admittedly quite funny, but they didn’t add up to a cohesive story.

Oh, well.  It’s possible that you will like “The Dead Don’t Die” much more than I did.  I might be the wrong audience for this, as I’ve never cared much for horror-comedies.  (The aforementioned “Return of the Living Dead” films are on the short list of those that I like.)  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A short review of “Captain Marvel” (2019)

“Captain Marvel” (2019) has a couple of weaknesses, but mostly rises above them in its second half to become an entertaining big-budget popcorn movie.  It generally succeeds, and I had a lot of fun with it.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

At first, the movie comes off as a mild disappointment — a boilerplate, made-to-order space opera with a thin script, simplistic dialogue and sometimes average acting.  (I personally don’t think that Brie Larson has the most depth or range of any actress in Hollywood.)

But the movie has a few surprises for us, both in terms of its story and its ability to win us over with humor and its sense of escapist, comic book fun.  Larson does have a lot of onscreen presence and charisma, and she does fine conveying anger and urgency.  She also has great deadpan comic line delivery.  After seeing the film, it’s difficult for me to picture anyone else in the role.

The special effects were nothing short of fabulous.  I didn’t expect to see a Marvel film with a space battle that could compete with those of the “Star Wars” franchise.  The fan service and the continuity with other Marvel films is also terrific.  Speaking of fan service — the Stan Lee tributes were genuinely touching.  One of them was a threefold reference to Lee, Kevin Smith and the 1990’s, when the story is set.  Talk about understanding how to please your target audience.

I’d recommend this.

 

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A review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018)

Was “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) really quite as bad as everyone said it was?

Yes, I do understand why it’s so maligned by “Star Wars” purists.  Han Solo has arguably been the entire franchise’s most memorable protagonist since his debut in its very first film in 1977.  (When we were kids and playing “Star Wars” in the street, how many of us wanted to be Luke Skywalker and how many of us wanted to be Han?)

Disney missed an opportunity to serve up what fans undoubtedly wanted — an edgy origin story that took risks to portray this famously wily criminal anti-hero.  What the studio gave us instead is a generally toothless, safe-for-primetime fable that even managed to become saccharine at times.  (You could argue that Luke’s origin story was far darker — he discovered the burned bodies of murdered aunt and uncle.  Then he studied magical martial arts with the mysterious mystic samurai-hermit who once fought wars with his absent father.)  “Solo” feels too much … like a Disney movie.

There are other problems too … its narrative is unfocused, it’s cluttered with too many characters, and, yes, it slavish attention to origin-story details is annoying.  (The how-Han-Solo-got-his-surname bit, for example, is indeed a big misfire.)

But “Solo” felt far more like an average film to me, instead of one that was truly terrible. I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being an acceptable, passably entertaining “Star Wars” entry.  It’s got a few things going for it.

It’s well cast, for one.  I was actually very surprised at how well actor Alden Ehrenreich captures the character of a young Han Solo.  They guy has natural charisma, and he seems to absolutely channel the character without once mimicking Harrison Ford.  You could do a lot worse.  Ehrenreich also has great chemistry with Chewbacca (Joonas Duotamo), and with Donald Glover, who equally shines in the role of a young Lando Clarissian.  If you put the three of them in a sequel with a leaner, darker screenplay aimed firmly at adults, it could be a truly great movie.  (Consider how lame the first “Captain America” movie was in 2011, and how its far darker 2014 sequel was so unexpectedly great.)

“Solo” also has great visual effects.  (All the newer “Star Wars” movies have come a long way from the clumsy, heavy handed CGI of the prequels.)  The Kessel Run sequences were especially good, and I’m still enough of a kid at heart to love those kind of dazzling set-pieces, even when they punctuate a lackluster script.

“Solo” was the sixth most expensive film ever made, at $392 million, and it was a complete commercial failure.  So I doubt we’ll ever see these versions of the characters again in theaters.  But what about television?  What about streaming services?  I, for one, would keep an open mind about whether Disney could do better with this film’s ingredients.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Big Jim Sports Camper!

“Big Jim” was yet another toy franchise that was handed down to me from my older brother in the 1970’s to me a little kid in the early 1980’s.  Mattel carried the toy line from 1972 all the way through 1986 — but I didn’t know a single other kid who played with these in the latter decade.  We were all firmly entrenched in Kenner’s “Star Wars” and Hasbro’s “G.I. Joe,”  with their wider ranges of small-scale, mostly all-plastic action figures.  “Big Jim’s” more doll-like 10-inch figures and complex accessories made them seem more like the “Barbie Dolls” that my older sisters used to play with.  (And they were roughly the same scale.)

This camper, in fact, was actually just one of Mattel’s “Barbie” vehicles that was cast in different plastic and lined with different vinyl siding.  (As a child of the 80’s, I’m still befuddled at why so many 70’s playsets were made of vinyl.  Did some law mandate that every product made in the 70’s include vinyl?)

What’s interesting about “Big Jim” toys from a cultural context is that they were … like a slightly pacifist “G.I. Joe.”  (As I’ve mentioned here at the blog before, 1970’s G.I. Joe’s were a foot tall and far more doll-like than 80’s action figures.)  Big Jim and his cohorts (like “Big Josh,” “Big Jeff,” “Big Jack,” you get the idea) were a lot like G.I. Joes.  They were exclusively depicted in all sorts of manly adventures — camping, rafting, dirt-biking or weightlifting.  But they had a decidedly non-military character.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Levi’s science fiction advertising posters

This ought to be an obscure Throwback Thursday — although I’d be thrilled if somebody else remembered these.  For a brief period in the early 1980’s, Levi’s produced some wicked cool in-store posters with science fiction themes.  I had several of them hanging in my room; the one below dates from 1981, and was advertised on eBay for a while for the modest sum of $20.

For decades, Levi’s had relied on endless cowboy imagery to sell its brand.  And that makes sense, given the rugged individualism they wished to associate with their product.  Portraying people wearing their jeans alongside strange aliens on fantastic worlds seems like an odd marketing choice.  (I don’t think it lasted very long.)  I can only guess that the success of “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) had something to do with the marketing strategy.  (You can also sometimes find Levi’s posters from the 1970’s featuring psychedelic imagery.)

The poster appears to feature the name “McClure” as the artist.  If any of you guys know the artist’s full name (or can point me in the direction of other posters like this), I’d be grateful.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Fisher-Price “Adventure People” Ambulance!

I can’t find a date for the “Adventure People” ambulance set, but it was a favorite of mine as a tot in the late 1970’s.  You pressed that siren at the ambulance’s top and it would blare quite loudly — it was mechanical, so the toy didn’t require batteries.

What’s interesting is about all of the “Adventure People” toys are their scale.  They were the same size as “Star Wars” figures, although they predated them.  A lot of the 1970’s “action figures” were larger and more like dolls.  (Think of how 70’s “G.I. Joes” compared with their more familiar 1980’s counterparts.)

 

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