The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

deaddontHere we go, another zombie flick- do we really need another? Well, I liked the setting, and its offbeat, rather kooky feel, which was a little like a Zombie Twin Peaks. If that sounds great to you, then its possibly worth a watch- it certainly appealed to me; oddball characters in a rural, remote setting, there was a lovely mood there. But it doesn’t hold together. The weird thing was, the gentle, almost affectionate tone of the place (“Centerville”) and its laidback characters (this film has a great, albeit terribly wasted cast- Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover etc), seemed quite at odds with some of the grisly, graphic gore, feeling rather like two different movies.

The problem for this film was, if it was a comedy, it wasn’t particularly funny; certainly amusing rather than hilarious, and if it was intended to be a horror film, well, it stumbled throughout. In all honesty, it has all been done before: Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead was both more knowingly arch regards commentary on zombie flicks and also much funnier, while George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was far better with the social commentary. Director Jim Jarmusch is rather heavy-handed here with the zombies returning to favourite old haunts and habits of when they were alive, commentating on consumerism and waste – its fine but it was old years ago, and Romero was much more subtle with it. 

I was also confused by some of the plotlines, as characters seemed to come and go- three children, for instance, escaping from a zombie-infested child detention centre find a house for shelter and aren’t returned to again, its like the screenwriter forgot them and left that arc completely hanging. Other characters are followed for awhile -the three ‘Cleveland Hipsters’- and then we find later them dead, their grisly fate occurring offscreen which may have seemed an arch commentary on horror tropes but just left me feeling… not frustrated exactly, but so many of the cast are just thrown in and then wasted. And I’m still not certain there was any point to Tilda Swinton’s creepy funeral director turning out to be samurai sword-wielding alien who calls a flying saucer to come pick her up. 

In the end, I was left wondering “why?”, you know, what was the point of the whole thing? There’s certainly some reward from the kooky feel of the place and the characters but its all quite wasted- I suppose its a case of the director not really being the right guy for this particular genre mash-up. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Jim Jarmusch has directed, but I gather his background is more arthouse, indie material than this kind of thing: I suppose how this turned out would be akin to someone like Terrence Malick making a horror film or a sci-fi film- an intriguing idea but not necessarily resulting in a successful movie. Maybe Dan O’Bannon was more of a genius than anybody gave him credit for. 

The Dead Don’t Die has recently arisen from its box-office grave and shambled onto Netflix here in the UK. Possibly worth a shot at Halloween, maybe.

 

King of New York (1990)

kingnewykAbel Ferrara’s King of New York is a highly-stylized exploitation mob movie, about New York drug lord Frank White (Christopher Walken) released from prison and intent on regaining his criminal empire. Shot mostly (possibly entirely) on location it has a gritty, docudrama ‘look’ which is undermined by just being so stylized and overly… maybe manipulative is the wrong word, but its a brazen shock-for-shocks-sake film, so much so that with every establishing shot of a new scene you expect to see a sudden moment of violence from anywhere. Its almost exhausting at times and this ultimately works against it- it doesn’t feel ‘real’, the characters almost being gratuitous caricatures, whether they are mobsters or cops. Supreme over all of this is Christopher Walken as Frank White, a typically riveting performance when the actor was in his prime, dominating every scene and clearly a league apart from the rest of his cast. It is a good cast, mind, with players destined for big things afterwards: David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, but its telling that each (with the exception of Fishburne) are largely under-used by a screenplay that skirts the surface and offers little substance or depth. White is almost permanently accompanied by two women who are both bodyguards and possibly lovers but I don’t think we even get to know their names, never mind get an inkling of what they are thinking or their background/history with White. Often it has the feeling that there’s a prequel movie that the director assumes we’ve already seen. Its pulp fiction, entirely exploitation, feeling no need for any depth.

It really has the feeling of a 1980s VHS rental; you know, the down-to-basics, often violent thrillers that thrived in the home video market when people could rent out the kind of unedited films that couldn’t be shown on network television. In that respect its a pleasant kind of throwback movie, but it lacks any kind of sophistication of message or execution: indeed its so intent on shocks and taking any excuse for a graphic shootout that it becomes rather convoluted and confused, which is really quite ironic. We don’t really understand White, or get under his skin, suggestions of his Robin Hood-style ethics (his drive to finance a neighbourhood hospital) unexplained, which is a pity considering Walken’s ability and screen presence. Perhaps Ferrara wanted to maintain some element of mystery to White’s background and intentions, but I think much of this issue is the films drive to shock. White will suddenly pull out his gun and shoot an adversary simply for the surprise and thrill of the sudden violence, when really the film should perhaps pause for some kind of dialogue that deepens the drama or suggests White’s motivation. 

So King of New York is clearly a film of its time, and rather suffers from its pulpish, shocker roots: a stylish b-movie (it certainly looks pretty good). Its dated by its electronic score that again is very of its era but I suppose this is, for its fans, all part of the films charm, and I can understand why the film has something of a high reputation among those who saw it back when it first came out. Watching it in 2021 though its really something of another story.

The Big Lebowski 4K UHD

big2There’s something wonderfully endearing about this Coen Brothers film, that gives it the feeling of a warm blanket- its a film to wrap yourself in, enjoy the great cast, the wonderful dialogue, the gentle whimsy of it all. Nothing feels, well, convincingly real somehow- it’s all very dreamlike, a fable, or perhaps an adult fairytale. Even though it’s only twenty years old, it feels oddly old-fashioned, a reminder of a period when I saw films like this and Boogie Nights and Magnolia– great films, I was being spoiled back then and I didn’t appreciate how much. Its curious how much these three films in particular shared a common cast, how, say, Aimee Mann turns up in a cameo in this and then her songs form such a backbone to the mood and soundtrack of Magnolia.

Indeed, maybe it’s those twenty years but there is such a tangible feel of the ‘good old days’ here. Hearing Shawn Colvin’s cover of Viva Las Vegas over the Big Lebowski end-credits was a call-back to me buying her albums back then; I was a huge fan of her Fat City album in 1992, and have bought all her albums since, but hearing her voice here was a sudden jolt. I don’t recall her song from watching the film before. Yeah, I know, twenty years. Its a bit like how surprised I was to see Aimee’s cameo, I didn’t remember it at all. Aimee was another favourite singer of mine from that era (discovered from her featuring in Time Stand Still, from Rush’s 1987 album Hold Your Fire (it’s one of my favourite songs)) so again, rewatching this film brings back all that stuff.

Where did all those years go? The cast, too, is a blast from the past- Jeff Bridges has always been a favourite, but I’d forgotten that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this- he looks so young here, so while it was a shock seeing him here, it was also a painful reminder of his untimely passing.  Of course he’s one of the cast members who turned up in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Christ he was a brilliant actor. He’s kind of young and bubbly in The Big Lebowski and it’s a sweet role for him. John Goodman nearly steals the film, which is saying something considering the cast around him- I think this is possibly one of his best performances, it just clicks. I suppose much of this is the perfect chemistry between him, Bridges and a shockingly young-looking Steve Buscemi (what a cast this film had!). The scenes these three have together (“shut the f–k up, Donny!”) are brilliant slices of perfection.

So anyway, The Big Lebowski– maybe you’re here to see how the 4K UHD holds up. It looks brilliant, a fine example of what the format can add to catalogue titles. Maybe stating that the film has never looked so good is beyond stating the obvious- detail is great, colours are vibrant. There is a lovely texture to it, the grain being captured and maintained without any DNR that I could see. There is a nice use of HDR in this too, which is something people look for, while forgetting that these films originally didn’t have any HDR treatment either theatrically or on DVD or Blu-ray releases. It certainly adds a nice vibrancy and ‘pop’ but I do sometimes wonder if its wholly warranted- it works here anyway, not distracting at all, it just adds to the visual quality of the film.

I only bought the film before on R1 DVD back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it in years, so can’t really comment on how it compares (an unfair comparison anyway, really). I did try the accompanying Blu-ray, which I hadn’t seen before. This is an old disc so based on an old master, but it’s where all the extras lie hence it warrants its inclusion with the UHD.  Even with the Blu-ray being automatically upscaled to 4K (any comparisons I make between Blu-ray and 4K are hamstrung by this) its clear there are issues with the master or encoding with the Blu-ray. It looks pretty ugly. Ouch, I sound like a 4K snob.

Regardless, I’m sure The Big Lebowski would work brilliantly on VHS on a b&w television. Its just a great film. The dude abides, indeed.

On that last thought, if I admit to feeling guilty even mentioning it, can I get away with wishing for a ‘twenty years later…’ sequel?  I just can’t help but be curious regards the dude now, what the hell would he think of America, and the world, where would he fit in, how would he even survive, out on the fringes, on the outside looking in on the current madhouse? I think we need the dude.

Boardwalk Empire Season 5 (2015)

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2016.8 Boardwalk Empire Season 5 (Blu ray)

Another tv series boxset. Another viewing bingefest. Four episodes on Day One, two more on Day Two, followed by the final two episodes on Day Three. Hell of a way of watching a tv series. The only better way of watching this show would have been being able to watch all five seasons in quick succession, which I’m sure many future viewers will do through boxsets and streaming.

Indeed, I’m rather envious of people doing that- discovering the shows pleasures and secrets in the space of weeks whilst up to now we’ve only been able to do so over the years. Shows like Boardwalk Empire will I’m sure have a second life because of that. Maybe it will get a reappraisal over time, because while it was a critical darling (and rightfully so, in my opinion) from the start, the show never seemed to capture audience attention; certainly it was no Sopranos and would quickly fall under the shadow of the Game of Thrones juggernaut. When the show finally ended with its fifth season last Autumn I wonder how many people were still watching.

Perhaps it was the slow burn? I don’t know. It was always a good show to me but some were off-put by the slow pace (what is it with peoples attention spans these days?). Technically it was accomplished, just like everything else on HBO- the production was film quality standard, and the cast were always excellent, Steve Buscemi simply magnificent throughout in a role he seemed born to play. Perhaps it was misconceptions. Perhaps the public wanted a 1920s-era Goodfellas, which Boardwalk Empire clearly wasn’t – yes the show could be very violent, at its best shockingly so, unleashing that violence without warning. But it was always more than just the violence. Boardwalk Empire was always a character piece, and a study of greed in a desperate, brutalized society of riches, poverty, and racism.

As it turned out, it was also a show about consequences, never more so than in this truncated final season. Using flashbacks both to Nucky’s childhood and young adulthood, it showed us those decisions that the young Nucky made that led to him becoming the Nucky that we saw from season one. These early formative events are juxtaposed by seeing Nucky in the ‘present’ of 1931 as he struggles to stop his empire crumbling around him. As we near the end of the series we witness the fateful moments that set in motion those events and relationships that the series chronicled in seasons one to five. Everything has consequences, and everything is set in motion when Nucky agrees to do the Commodore’s dirty work and send the young Gillian to him to sate the old man’s filthy desires. “Don’t do it,” I muttered helplessly at the screen, knowing full well that it was inevitable. The act sets Nucky on the path towards the wealth and power that he craves, to everything he will become by the start of series one, but it also seals his final fate that we see at the end of season five, and all his troubles in between. And in something of a revelation, Gillian Darmody turns out to be the chief victim of the whole saga, putting her actions of the whole series into a whole new perspective. It doesn’t really condone what she would do, but it does explain everything and lends her some sympathy.

I understand some fans didn’t like the final season, but I really enjoyed it, and I thought the last episode was a great ending to the show. It gave a weight and pathos to everything we had seen before over the five years, so much so that I look forward to one day watching the whole series again from start to the finish, only this time having the perspective granted from those last few moments of the last episode. Boardwalk Empire was always a very good show, but with this finale, it actually became a great one.

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