Review: 'The Dead Don't Die'

Jim Jaramusch's latest is D.O.A., despite an impressive cast Read More

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Review: 'The Dead Don't Die'

Like the zombies here, Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is dead on its feet and ambling toward no clear destination. The existential nonchalance of his many films (Down By Law, Only Lovers Left Alive, Patterson) harmonize nicely with love stories of bemused, alienated characters. It doesn't quite work with horror-show material. Horror doesn't seem to interest him that much, except in a phantom limb sort of way, as in the tingle of remembering the thrill of late night movies decades ago. Thus the references here to Creepy magazine and Cleveland TV horror show host Ghoulardi, honored in both image and taglines ("Stay sick!" "Turn blue!"). Jarmusch is shooting in the Hudson Valley of New York. The terrain looks reasonably like the rural, » Read More

Jimmy Stewart & 'Toy Story 4'

The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Naked Spur (1953), two of the best westerns Stewart made, are screening at the Stanford Theatre. In the former, he's a hired hand on a mysterious trail of vengeance; in the second, he's a manhunter, whose latest prisoner (a diabolical Robert Ryan) may be his last. As visually rich as they're morally complicated, these are two examples of the war-seasoned star on his way to the lethal honeytrap Hitchcock had waiting for him in Vertigo. Toy Story 4 has the wings and claws of a great melodrama. Nobody today can drill into childhood trauma like Pixar. In this conclusion, Woody is a man out of time, obsolete and relegated to the dusty closet. He salves his dignity by protecting a tenderfoot toy his » Read More

'Black Mirror' & The 'Bash Bros.'

The ways of Netflix are hard for mortals to understand. Not just the mysterious nature of their ratings and the secret of how many people are watching, but the constant element of surprise. Take the no-comment drop of The Lonely Island's "visual poem," The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. It's allegedly a video rap record done by baseball's Jose Canseco (Andy Samberg) and Mark McGwire (co-director Akiva Schaffer), heroes of the Oakland Athletics in the 1980s. Naturally, the auteurs of SNL's "Dick in a Box" go straight for the crotch, with a sheaf of autotuned, shouted-out forced rhymes about shrunken junk and renal disease from anabolic steroids: "Kidney failure's just part of the game!" » Read More

Review: 'Shaft'

It's supposed to be about a black private dick, not a shtick about his privates. This catastrophic reboot insists that we won't know NYC detective John Shaft is a bad M.F. unless he talks about his magnum every six seconds. Barbershop excepted, director Tim Story has never made anything like a good movie. He's studied the inside of Kevin Hart's howling mouth in two Ride Along pictures (the third is due presently), and helmed two dismal Fantastic Four opuses (2005, 2007). Here he's re-rebooting a super-detective franchise from the 1970s, starring the imposing Richard Roundtree, which was successfully redone by the late John Singleton in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead. Detective movies take care of themselves; Jackson tooling around » Read More

Review: 'Godzilla'

What's killing the cinema, No. 448 in a series: not enough exclamation points in titles, a clear proof of lack of confidence. And bring back shiny subordinate clauses. Dracula, Prince of Darkness has far more heft than plain old Dracula. The very title of Godzilla, King of The Monsters has brio that makes up for Michael Dougherty's bewildering direction. The who, what and why isn't just out the window, it's over the hills and far away. Sizable info dumps are required because of links to Godzilla (2014), and there's more cast than anyone knows what to do with: Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn stand around like guests who don't know anyone at the party. » Read More

Review: 'All is True'

It is 1613: the Globe theater is destroyed by fire during a production of Henry VIII (also titled "All is True"). Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) leaves London to go back to the small town he was raised in. His wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), has been doing fine without him during his long absence. She buried their 11 year old son, Hamnet, without the help of her husband. The writer has two daughters; the angry, unmarried Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and her sister, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), lovelessly married to a puritan. (Branagh underscores the irony that this son in law, whose faith demanded the closure of the theaters, was Shakespeare's heir.) As the Bard endures the anger of his family, he receives a surprise visit from his former patron, » Read More

Review: 'Rocketman'

So Rocketman commences with Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed in a pomegranate-hued devil costume, striding toward a circle of metal folding chairs. In recovery you're supposed to be anonymous. Elton is there to state his full name, and confess his polydrug abuse and sex addiction. The addicts hang on his words. One asks, "What were you like as a child?" Not that question! A lonely prodigy in the London suburbs, that's what, complete with an ice cold dad (Steven Mackintosh), and straying, withholding mom (Bryce Dallas Howard in a role Gemma Arterton would have improved). Young Elton (Matthew Illesey) sings "The Bitch Is Back," not a song one associates with 10-year-olds, to a crowd of dancing 1950s neighbors in a cul de sac. This lost kid » Read More

Review: 'Charlie Says'

Harron's film gets the milieu, the angle and the details right. To properly tell the story of the Manson gang, one needs a certain fellow feeling for the hippies. Without compassion for a life of flamboyant laziness, the Mansons will seem incomprehensible, some unique Southern California plague like pet-eating coyotes, brushfires and the Santa Ana winds. Harron's sympathy for devils was previously seen in her much-praised adaptation of American Psycho (2000) and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) about the polemicist and street-lunatic Valerie Solanas. Charlie Says is more thoughtful work, less studiously hip than its predecessors. » Read More

Review: 'Red Joan'

In flashbacks we see Joan's youth at Cambridge in the late 1930s; played by the pretty but uninvolving Sophie Cookson, she was a drab science student who got swept into a friendship with a dashing older student, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes). The pair of dazzling foreigners are ardent Communists who try to recruit Joan into the party. Over the course of many decades, Joan is mixed up with them, carrying on an affair with Leo that lasts into the war years. Matters get troublesome when Leo presses Joan to spy for the Party; she's now an assistant to a research scientist (Stephen Campbell Moore). Her boss loves her, but he's trapped in one of those Graham Greene escape-proof marriages. » Read More

Review: 'The River and The Wall'

The film documents a 1,900-mile journey from the shoulder of Texas to its toe at the Gulf of Mexico. Five travelers follow the Rio Grande, America's fourth largest river. It's just one front for the proposed "big, beautiful wall." According to this gloriously photographed study, only 3 percent of Texas is publicly owned. Most of that is in Texas's Outback, the Big Bend region. It is titanic country, 800,000 acres of open land. It's remote, often tractless, a place to stir the soul of anyone who loves a Western movie. The area is so rugged that it has to be seen just so that the wall can be laughed off properly: vertical cliffs facing each other hundreds of feet above the river, mesas, box canyons and bluffs. Says Masters: it's "like the » Read More

Doris Day Festival at Stanford Theatre

In his autobiography Day's sometimes-costar James Cagney noted, "After Love Me or Leave Me, Doris went into those Pillow Talk things, and I for one have always considered that a hell of a waste." Day made big money in froth: Tea for Two (May 1-2) is No No Nanette under a different cover; Move Over, Darling (with James Garner, May 17-19) is a remake of My Favorite Wife, and My Dream is Yours (May 8-9) is highly sticky, despite a guest-starring Bugs Bunny. But Day has a range that defies the predictability of her early 1960s hit-making days, as seen in the Stanford Theatre's well-programmed retrospective. More than a few, such as The Pajama Game, are unavailable for streaming. » Read More

Review: 'Twilight Zone'

The biggest disappointment is an episode giving itself 10,000 feet more importance than its William Shatner-starring inspiration. In "Terror at 30,000 Feet," the interestingly surly Adam Beach is a journalist who hears a future podcast describing how the plane he's aboard is doomed to crash. He seeks the usual suspects aboard: Muslims? Russian gangsters? While the paranoid state of America in 2019 is a good starting point for a tale of terror, director Greg Yaitanes can't get us into the mood of fear. Maybe the point is that the jet is flying smoothly and that the trauma is all in the passenger's mind--like Trump's crises, it's all in a man's head. But unless you worship Lost as a marvel of narrative, the punchline is abject. » Read More

Review: 'High Life'

Hurtling toward a black hole at nigh-light speed, a spacecraft known only as "7" is in the middle of an eight-year mission. The outside of the craft is blandly boxlike. Inside, it's crappy, exactly like the littered hall of a public housing apartment. Claire Denis' High Life, and yes, the title is ironic, begins with two survivors aboard. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is repairing a magnetic shield outside the craft, while baby-monitoring the wails of a yearling girl fussing in her makeshift playpen. When not tending to the babe, Monte is recycling his urine, or hauling the scraps of his meals in a dingy plastic bucket to the indoor compost heap. » Read More

Review: 'Avengers: Endgame'

This massive cycle is a feat of cinematic engineering for which there is no parallel. Completing it, the Russo Brothers use their three hours not just for the usual battle royals, last stands and self-sacrifice, but also to capture the mood of a grieving Earth. As the least respected member of the team, Ant-Man, Paul Rudd does the great old Ebenezer Scrooge at the graveside scene, seeing his name on a cenotaph to "The Vanished" in Golden Gate Park. Survivors have moved on--Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has also resettled in the country with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and child; Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, no longer bifurcated, but a scholarly Hulk with glasses, signs autographs for the kids who tug his sleeve. » Read More

Review: 'Peterloo'

It's clear that Mike Leigh intended Peterloo, the story of an 1819 massacre of unarmed working people, as his magnum opus. In High Hopes, Naked and Vera Drake, among many others, Leigh has made unparalleled studies of the British class war through deep focus on the combatants, creating characters through improvisation and intensive rehearsal. He is a treasure, and has no parallel in America. In Peterloo, a historical drama of some 20 or more characters, Leigh tries for a working class epic. But it's a tough business trying to match the intensity of, say, the Corpus Christi scenes in Roma or that landmark for staging political violence on screen, the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin (1926). » Read More

Review: 'Mary Magdalen'

She has a part-time career as a midwife: "Look at me," she orders a woman at childbirth, laying down next to her, trying to get her to work through it. Her father Daniel (Denis Menochet) wants her to marry an established widower. The unwanted marriage causes the girl such torment that the community decides she's possessed, forcing her into a watery exorcism at night. Alone and despondent, she meets a wandering rabbi familiar to us all. He comforts her, telling her he knows she doesn't harbor demons. » Read More

Review: 'Shazam!'

When Billy utters the magic word "Shazam," a lightning bolt changes him into Earth's Mightiest Mortal: a hunk played by Zachary Levi, the Jewish prince physician on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This new Shazam is a novice superhero who doesn't even know his own strength, despite the coaching from his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). The boy is a motormouthed reject who treasures a bullet flattened from the chest of Superman himself, complete with certificate of authenticity. Why this figure is called Shazam instead of Captain Marvel, as he was in the 1940s, is a long and boring story of copyrights, easily explained on the Internet. The Swedish director David Sandberg brings a ponderous, antiseptic touch to this adventure with plenty of » Read More

Review: 'The Hummingbird Project'

Welcome to another episode of Bad Hair Theater: Kim Nguyen's The Hummingbird Project, which played at this year's Cinequest, is a moral drama that illustrates the physical effects of bad behavior. If we do wrong, it will be reflected not just in our faces but in the very hair upon our heads. The rackety NYC schemer Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) wears a kind of Mark Anthony toupee with bangs. His cousin Anton (an often-droll Alexander Skarsgard) is a bundle of panic and obsessions, and these anxieties apparently triggered a case of male pattern baldness. Michael Mando, who plays the fearsome Nacho on Better Call Saul, is Mark Veg, a drilling expert whom the other two have hired on their secret project to make billions. As usual, Mando has done » Read More

Remembering Agnes Varda

Driving around France, Varda visits the camps of migrants and squatters. They root through a potato field where spuds too big or too small have been left behind by the harvesters. She also finds a family of singers, helping themselves to the grapes of an abandoned vineyard. To explain the legal rights of such potential trespassers, she brings in robed, lace-jaboted advocates. (Varda wonders if the well-off who go in for gleaning in the fields could count as legally "needy," to which a lawyer replies, "Yes. They are needy. They need to have fun.") As Varda interviews the poor at the turn of the millennium, she makes a case that gleaning is a rebel's duty, a way of fighting the waste and planned obsolescence built into the system. » Read More

Review: 'Us'

Break out your decoder rings; the flawed but intriguing Us's political subtleness is hidden by its straightforward terror. Among other things, Jordan Peele's follow up to Get Out breaks a long drought. Santa Cruz, with its deep cold bay and hoodooed mountains, ought to be California's Transylvania. Instead, it's remembered for The Lost Boys, which is just The Goonies wearing plastic vampire fangs. There hasn't been a good movie made there since Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Now the curse is lifted, even if much of Us is shot in a lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. » Read More

Review: 'Dumbo'

Aside from some gross racial caricaturing; the original Dumbo (1941) is an unusually hand-made cartoon. Here in 64 minutes is not just the elephant child's tragedy at being separated from its mother, but the sweat and stink of a circus, and a squad of clowns who are dangerous and really know their business. In the magnificent "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence, the animators went after the pretensions of Fantasia, with strobing color and surrealism. It's the rare instance of Disney being as funny as a Bugs Bunny cartoon. » Read More

Review: 'Captive State'

The script by Wyatt and his wife Erica Beeney doesn't center around the usual young adult-lit style hero, with one brave warrior giving hope. Rather, the rebels are odd types: nurses, teachers, whores and street criminals, prepared not be taken alive. The aliens monitor all broadband, so the resistance uses analog technology: reel to reel tapes, carrier pigeons, typewriters, and secret messages hidden in cigarette papers. We're lured into the story through a we-are-the-dead set of lovers, like Winston and Julia in 1984. In the nighttown slums of Pilsner, a Chicago suburb, sex worker "Jane Doe" (Vera Farmiga) has luxuries, a record player and a vase of fresh cut flowers. Her trick is the secret policeman William Mulligan (John Goodman). » Read More

Review: 'Captain Marvel'

Brie Larson's brown-eyed and appealing underplaying sells this material, which isn't the freshest. She is called "Vers," an amnesiac soldier of the outer space Kree empire, with the ability to blast photon rays from her fists. The power is a gift from the Empire's all-highest, an AI simulation that appears to her in the shape of Annette Benning. Vers has a rep for being too unfocused and emotional, as she's always reminded by her superior officer and sparring partner (Jude Law). After a skirmish, Vers is captured by the pointy-eared Skrulls. Her dormant memories are stirred up during an interrogation by their diabolical leader, the Cockney-accented Taros (an amusing Ben Mendelsohn). » Read More

Elle Fanning at Cinequest

Elle Fanning's debut wasn't auspicious; at age 3 she played the young version of Sean Penn's daughter in I Am Sam (2001) wherein Penn played a mentally challenged man trying to adopt a child. Penn got an Oscar nomination, but the film is destined to be remembered forever as the subject of a four-word rule, as stated by Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder (2008). Just as one loves too wisely and not too well, one can act too dumb. But Fanning has been smart, and her poise has been remarkable for someone of her years. Consider the regret she brought to Super 8 (2011), where she played an Ohio steel-town girl pinched by sorrow, one of the better recreations of a '70s youth in a modern movie. » Read More