The Dead Don’t Die

It’s become the Mother of All Clichés: “We’ve all seen this movie before.” Ever since the news became an adjunct to the entertainment industry, it has spun out realities shaped like movie plots. And the newsmakers, the shapers of our reality, have given up any pretense that they think in other terms. Yeah, we’ve all seen this “movie” before—whether it’s The Day After Tomorrow or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Handmaid’s Tale—and yet we can’t turn it off. It just keeps repeating, to our enervated dismay.

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie movie in 2019, which is to say, it is itself an undead specimen. That one young-ish character equates Jay Gatsby with Robert Redford rather than Leonardo DiCaprio is indication enough that the director precipitates this time warp only half-consciously. “This isn’t gonna end well” is Police Deputy Adam Driver’s mantra. It turns out that this isn’t a premonition—he cops to having read the script. If only it had reminded him that the fourth wall was already broken long ago, by such obscurities as Mel Brooks. Even if the dead don’t die, jokes can.

Truth be told, I’ve always had some affection for Jarmusch’s work, for his almost ascetic dedication to never going the extra mile. In a sense, he has been making zombie movies for his whole career. Driver notices a special plot for children in a cemetery and asks his superior, Bill Murray, why it’s there. “Some 19th-century thing,” he shrugs. That caliber of repartee—that commitment, on the writer-director’s part, to not consulting Siri for the correct answer—takes about as much effort as spelling “D.G.A.F.”

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Us

The most frightening thing about the new vogue in horror films is that people think they are the best metaphor for the world right now. Jordan Peele’s Get Out was demoniacally clever in how it wrought anxiety, and then paranoia—and then terror—from the power imbalance of being a black man introduced to his white girlfriend’s wealthy parents. Clearly, Peele had not expected that it would be released on the heels of a racist president’s inauguration, but it spoke to a moment in which just about every identity group (but especially black people and white liberals) had reason to see through the façade of the “post-racial” era, and expect the worst of seemingly well-meaning white people. In effect, the movie cast micro-aggressions as premonitions. Peele, however, was aware of the wonkiness of his vision; Get Out was an exuberant horror-comedy.

In Us, the tables have turned—the apparent protagonists are a wealthy family, this time black, and the apparent antagonists embody those who have been made to suffer so that the family can enjoy their privilege. The story begins in 1986, when Adelaide is on holiday with her working-class parents in Santa Cruz; she wanders into a funhouse and encounters her doppelgänger. Decades later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) pull up to their lake house in a Mercedes-Benz, with their children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) in the backseat.

Except for some carefully placed signifiers—such as an Alvin Ailey poster (Adelaide used to be a ballerina) and Gabe’s Howard University swag—this family is straight out of advertising copy: loving, knowing, aspirational. The question of whether they are products of a “color-blind” society or willfully, selectively deaf to race is left conspicuously unanswered.

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Vice

A lot has happened in recent memory that, just five years ago, would have seemed implausible. Adam McKay, who directed a singalong to “Afternoon Delight” in Anchorman (2004), is now caught in an epistemic bind. What he has gotten into with Vice is comparable to the trap that Michael Moore set for himself a decade ago, in Capitalism: A Love Story. In varying fashions, I think both filmmakers are trying to get to the truth despite themselves.

I don’t mean this in the usual sense that they are getting in their own way unwittingly; rather, they are struggling against the impossibility of getting out of their own way in systems that put constraints on objectivity. In Vice, a biopic film of former Vice President Dick Cheney, McKay makes no bones about being brazenly partisan and knowing what that means in an era of tense, stygian, attention-zapping partisanship. He wants to show us how we got here, but show us in a style that accords with what he critiques.

To that end—and this is not an original observation—the director takes off from online “explainers” (quick, informative, graphic-heavy outgrowths of Facebook’s pressure on news agencies to produce viral-video content), plus absurdist bits that his comedies imported to the big screen from Saturday Night Live. A mystery narrator is explicit about their purpose—to fill in the gaps that no one, outside the subjects, could know. Put differently, they are anti-footnotes to contrast with the “known” facts: pop-ups that beseech us to trust the filmmakers but also reminders to take our grain of salt.

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Green Book

Green Book—whether it intends to or not—makes a virtue of simplicity. I think reasonable people could disagree about the merits of that virtue, or their political value in this kind of movie, especially in this day and age. If, however, you find yourself outraged by Green Book, on the grounds that it is a toxic work that polite society is obliged to cancel, I suggest you log off of Twitter and take a deep breath. If the symptoms persist, therapy.

Granted, Nick Vallelonga, whose screenplay was “inspired” by his father’s experiences, has the shrewd competence of a Hollywood hack. It’s as if the occupants of the car in Driving Miss Daisy pulled a Chinese fire drill—now it’s an uncouth white driver (“Tony Lip,” played by Viggo Mortensen) pitted against a super-couth black passenger (Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali). Not only do they learn about themselves, and each other, but they go on a road trip (through the Deep South, in the innocently early ’60s)!

I think it is wise to set aside the problems inherent in crafting a true story around subjects who are dead—not because it is unimportant, but because it is far from unique to Green Book. Granted, a nightclub bouncer with mob connections, like Tony, seems like a man given to tall tales; his son clearly loved him; and Don, a classically trained pianist, was—if the movie can be trusted at all—a private individual, not given to revealing much of himself. Nobody “owns” history, but it does seem tilted in favor of chatterboxes.

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Eighth Grade

One of the things that Bo Burnham (who wrote and directed Eighth Grade) and Greta Gerwig (who wrote and directed Lady Bird) share in common is an ability to sidestep their inexperience deftly. In Lady Bird, Gerwig loaded ungainly exposition into the mouths of unanticipated characters. In Eighth Grade, Burnham establishes his street cred early on. The grown-ups do the dab and call the reproductive system “lit”; they broaden the generation gap with acts of cultural appropriation. So, within a few minutes, he expels the oldsliterally takes them out of focussave for Kayla’s father, who is teed up for a big reveal. The message to young audiences is clear: despite the calendar, Burnham is no ordinary adult. Neither was Mr. Rogers.

I like Burnham and I like Eighth Grade; he has, and it shows, a great deal of talent, judgment, and sympathy. But however much the film (like Lady Bird) succeeds on its own terms, I do not find those terms very compelling. Both of these chronicles of adolescent life were made by young filmmakers (Burnham was born in 1990, Gerwig in 1983) who became well-known early in life; both of their movies are kind. If one had to sum them up in a single image, it would be the gimlet-eyed emoji. But their protagonists don’t exist to change, even if they grow up; they exist to be affirmed for who they are. (In the same vein, Kayla’s fatherJosh Hamiltonexists to affirm; outside of his daughter, he has no life, the implication being that this is how Kayla sees him.) This mechanism blandishes older viewers as well: it’s like a “yassss queen” projected backward to our darling, fledgling selves.

That being said, I think that knowing when to play to one’s strengths is undervalued, just as a gift for immersive empathy is rare in a comedian. Burnham’s rapport with Elsie Fisher, as Kayla, is truly specialeven if one takes John Hughes and Molly Ringwald as a benchmark. Compared to The Breakfast Club, Eighth Grade has an open structure; it seems tied to Fisher’s emotional states. Where Hughes blamed parents for their teenagers’ woes, Burnham shirks adults altogetherin part, I think, because his knowledge of that species is limited, but also because he doesn’t like to point fingers. Youth exculpates Kayla and (most of) her peers. This first-time director’s goal, as I see it, is to give them a safe space to try on their personas.

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The Favourite

Once the stardom of Emma Stone had gone through beta-testing, and was finally F.D.A.-approved, I thought she was a detoxified Lindsay Lohan, just as I once assumed that Adele was the version of Amy Winehouse who did go to rehab. Stone struck me as a throwback to a time when men in suits schemed out pretty starlets’ careers; she did not act in movies, she starred in vehicles—like Crazy, Stupid, Love or The Help. In La La Land, which was no mere vehicle—it was a full-on showboat—Stone was perfectly matched with Ryan Gosling, another constructed star. Given that the night sky has gotten clogged with self-managed talents, competing for our attention on ever-smaller screens, their twinkle was reassuring, if also uncanny.

Transported to the early 18th century in The Favourite, Stone is perhaps the weakest leg of a love triangle comprising herself, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman—but she is also the only leg bereft of romantic feeling, which the other two, in their differing prodigious ways, are so good at showing. That said, she registers dissolute ruination very convincingly, considering that her Iago starts out as a sexy milkmaid pitted against Weisz’s huntress. Her bright-eyed Americanness is just right for the part; Stone deftly lets on that this servant’s pluck is the very thing that puts her at risk of corruption.

The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is sometimes overconfident in his visual scheme and underconfident in his storytelling. The former, or at least his penchant for the funhouse distortion of fish-eye lenses, can be explained away by the technical constraints of shooting antique manors in natural light. But many of his low-angle shots, including some of Nicholas Hoult, who is already playing up to his powdered wig and the prissy makeup for which Trump’s tan is a 21st-century equivalent, are grossly emphatic; and when courtiers bust out hip-hop moves dancing to harpsichord music, we are halfway to The Little Hours but tonally out of step. Likewise, the use of crosscutting is distracting at best and confusing at worst; it eats away at any real tension or irony during a promising sequence at a bordello.

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The Death of Stalin

In The Death of Stalin, laughs are wrapped with barbed wire: one stumbles through the Orwellian schadenfreude, half-awake to the present goings-on at the White House. Trump’s rat maze continues to attract new vermin; his cheese does not seem worth all the hazards of grabbing it—but greed tells its hostages otherwise. I saw this film months ago, but the comic potential of bad people in worse situations is always ripe for an exploiter as ruthless as his or her subjects. Enter Armando Iannucci—political farceur.

I think, like most people, I land in different slots on the spectrum between American naivete and British cynicism—or British naivete about American cynicism—depending on the hues of my mood or news of the day. After In the Loop (2009) savaged Britain’s democratic institutions, Iannucci crossed the pond to hope-and-change Washington for Veep. He sets his sights here on Communist Russia. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either his hardest target or easiest. Satire is premised on the gulfs between pretense and reality, but those gaps ought to be unexpected as well as wide. History has not taught us to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt.

That being said, I think that even if Trump had never descended his gilded escalator and helped put the threat of fascism back into the air, Iannucci’s insights would have still proven just as timeless as Terry Gilliam’s were in Brazil. And Iannucci’s totalitarian romp has a bonus basis in fact. Linking their films is Michael Palin, who I almost didn’t recognize as Molotov. The Monty Python alum has graduated from playing the part of the ambitious Mengele-on-the-make to occupying a role similar to the one played by Ian Holm in 1985: the exasperated functionary. This palsied Molotov could use a cocktail, and Palin demonstrates this by sweating out equivocations. In a Politburo meeting, he bloviates between self-canceling clauses; the hands of his colleagues seesaw their agreement like bids at an auction. Watching Bolsheviks snarl up in their own pollution of language is a sight to see.

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