Toy Story 4 – Film Review

When a trilogy is as near perfect as the three Toy Story animated features from Disney Pixar is, the news a while ago that a fourth might be in production was understandably greeted with a huge amount of apprehension. After all, even though the series consisted of three very individual adventures, in its way it was already the complete three-act saga. It had its beginning, a middle, and an immensely satisfying end.

Each had a plot that culminated with an exciting climax (each climax a little more exciting than the one before), and for the record, each was 11 minutes longer than the previous installment. Andy was grown and his toys were now passed on to little Bonnie. The sun could finally set on the cowboy and his buddies.

Yet, now, nine years after the what we thought was the final release, there’s Toy Story 4, so it’s no surprise that many fans, yours truly among them, were nervous. After all, for whatever reason, a trilogy seemed somehow finite. We only have to glance at Jaws: The Revenge to realize how a fourth chapter can subvert something that began so well.

The film begins with a flashback. It’s the moment nine years earlier when Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was separated from cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang during a rainstorm. The character was absent for the duration of film number three, but this introductory moment of separation reminds us of who Boo Peep was and her emotional connection to Woody. She’ll turn up again later.

Note the photo-realism of the rain during the intro. When the original Toy Story was released in 1995, those little animated details such as the leaves on the trees, clouds in a rich blue sky, the wallpaper designs in the rooms, were quite remarkable. Considering how new computer-generated features were at the time, we had to be reminded that those exterior shots were still animated. Twenty-four years later, the progressive strides taken in the art of CGI are so wide, not only do we no longer question what we see, the photo-realism of rain pouring over vehicles in the street, puddles that splash, water that drips from pipes, are all taken for granted. But stop and study. The standard of animation is genuinely astonishing.

Besides the re-introduction of a previously known character and the technical achievements of animated technology, the other thing that may strike you is the film’s new screen ratio. This is the first Toy Story feature to be presented widescreen. All three previous movies were shown in the standard screen ratio of 1:85, meaning they were something slightly wider than a square. Once released on video, they would fit snugly on TV screens of yesteryear without losing much of the picture, and no black bars at the top and bottom. But number 4 is letterboxed, giving it a ratio of 2:39. Wide screens usually indicate a more epic stature to its content. Can you imagine a Star Wars film that was not letterboxed? For Toy Story 4, the screen ratio indicates its own separation from the original trilogy, plus the wide image serves as a visual reminder that what we’re watching is no straight-to-DVD installment; Toy Story 4 is pure cinema.

The film continues with the concept that all toys are secretly alive. Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Mr. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles, whose voice was culled from previous outtakes and used with family permission for this film) along with the rest of Andy’s toys, are still together, but now they belong to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and Bonnie, on her first day of kindergarten, has made a new friend.

As part of a class project, Bonnie has made Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with pipe cleaner arms, mismatched googly eyes, and feet made from a Popsicle stick broken in two then held together by a lump of clay. But most importantly, Bonnie loves him. But once back at the bedroom with all the other toys, Forky has an identity crisis and wants out as soon as possible. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first film, Forky has no concept of being a toy. But unlike Buzz, who genuinely thought he was an astronaut stranded on a new planet, Forky has no clue what he is. Considering he’s made from neither a spoon nor a fork but a spork, having an identity crisis is understandable. “Like it or not, you’re a toy,” Woody has to remind the new addition to the nursery.

Once Forky makes a run for it, the toys are forced to take to the road to get him back, not only for Bonnie but for his own sake. Along the way they encounter help from Canadian daredevil toy and his motorcycle, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, whose final word at the end of the film is a character appropriate “Whoa”), the return of Bo Peep and her sheep, Billy, Goat, and Gruff, a group of creepy ventriloquist dolls who act as henchmen, and the film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks) as a talking doll whose voice box with the pull string no longer works. Plus, though you won’t catch their names during the film, stay for the credits to read the cast list, just for the fun of it. Some of Bonnie’s toys include Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett), Bitey White (Betty White), and Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner).

It won’t take long for those who, like me, doubted the need for a Toy Story 4. Perhaps need is pushing it. But it works wonderfully, proving that when Pixar has an idea, don’t be a doubter. For personal preferences, there could have been more scenes shared between Woody and Buzz, if only for ol’ times sake, but chapter 4 is more focused on Woody trying to rescue Forky while having his heartstrings pulled by Bo Peep and his voice string yanked by Gabby Gabby. It’s already crammed with incident.

The film grips, there are no lulls, and it’s continuously very funny. It’s also immensely touching. “Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do,” Woody reminds the nursery crowd. With a finale that all but guarantees a completion to the tales, Toy Story 4 should be Pixar’s final word on the matter. But then again, you can never be quite sure.

MPAA Rating; G            Length: 100 Minutes

Posted in Film

Freaky Friday – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center Theater, Phoenix

The ability to see a problem through another person’s eyes in order to get a real understanding of thoughts and feelings is not easy. Stepping out of yourself, if only for a moment, and walking in someone’s shoes could make all the difference. It’s amazing how many of the world’s issues, big or small, would be solved when a simple perspective is changed. But what’s really amazing is that a lot of us just can’t do it.

In Freaky Friday, the new Disney musical comedy staged by Valley Youth Theatre and now playing Herberger Theater Center until June 30, takes a literal turn with the idea. At a crucial time in their lives, Mom and daughter are forced to swap places. Both have challenges that need to be faced, and both have a time crunch. For mom, it’s an approaching wedding; for the daughter, it’s her whole world, school friends, a boy, the challenge of teachers, everything. If only the other could see just how demanding their days are and what they have to go through.

And then it happens. A heated argument, a wish that the other could see how difficult their lives are, a tug-of-war with a suspiciously magical oversized hourglass, and, Shazam, bodies are swapped. It’s freaky. And it’s Friday.

While the show is based on the funny 1972 children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, the overall idea is the same, but the details are different. Having gone through several different Disney big-screen versions of the story, the first just four years after the book was published, a lot of tweaks and changes have fallen into place. Names are changed – daughter Annabel is now Ellie while mom has gone from Ellen to Katherine – plus there’s an important deadline approaching. “Everything started the day before my mother got married,” narrates the teenager.

Where the book centered almost exclusively on the point of view of the daughter in mom’s body (the real mom in daughter’s body is absent for most of the book and only turns up near the end) the show gives equal time to both. Plus, mom is supposed to be getting married the next day, except that mom now has to go to school or her daughter may be suspended for yet another absentee day, while daughter has to pull the wedding plans together or it’s all going to fall apart. There’s also the issue of that magic hourglass. It’s broken, which means in order to reverse the situation and get bodies back to normal, somehow either mom or daughter needs to find the other hourglass. It’s thought to be sitting on a shelf at a local pawn shop.

Counting the names, there are 32 teenagers on stage plus a further 5 guest adults, a huge cast, giving the company the ability to introduce new talent to experience professional theatre in the prestigious setting of the Herberger, many for the first time. And if there’s one thing that producing artistic director Bobb Cooper has a knack for doing right is, through auditions and an extensive search, finding the right cast for the right parts. For Freaky Friday, Cooper has compromised the rules of VYT age caps by casting an adult in the important central role of mom. He did it with Grease and West Side Story, and it worked. While all the teenage roles are age-appropriate, casting returning VYT alum Sarah Ambrose to play Katherine gives the comedic portion of her character that extra heft. Watching an adult playing a high-schooler pretending to be an adult is considerably more effective than having a teenager pretend she’s a teenager while dressed to appear like an adult. Ambrose is a talent, and her Ellie as Katherine – daughter as mom – is genuinely funny. “No way,” she declares when realizing bodies are swapped. “This sucks!

But the show doesn’t begin and end with an adult in the cast. Equally effective at changing personalities and convincing that what we’re watching is an adult in a teenager’s body is Kate Brink as Ellie. Last seen as the storefront dolly in VYT’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Brink is a bundle of musical theatre energy. In addition to sounding as if she’s fitting in when forced to spend a day as an adult, her Act Two song No More Fear brought the opening night house down and even had some to their feet.

The show was originally developed in 2016 when it opened in Arlington, Virginia. Despite mostly positive reviews, it never made it to Broadway. Instead, after fulfilling dates in San Diego, Cleveland, and Houston, the musical became immediately available for regional theatre around the country. A surprising move considering how funny writer Bridget Carpenter’s script is, and how good several of the songs from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s new score are. The device of having magic hourglasses as a means to swapping bodies might be asking a lot – magical fortune cookies in the 2003 movie remake was easier to digest – but that’s merely a pathway to making a point. What’s important is everything that follows. As Ellie sings in the introductory ensemble song, when just about everything is at stake, this particular Friday isn’t simply freaky, it’s also “… One crazy kick-ass day.”

With a cast this size and a support throughout that is this solid, the list of names that shine in such a vivacious and highly entertaining early summer production is too long, but there are standouts. In addition to the two central leads, worthy of special mentions are Alexis Archer as mean girl Savanah, Asher Stubbs as Ellie’s younger brother and budding ventriloquist Fletcher, Riley Thornton as the dreamy guy in high school whose every entrance is greeted with a heavenly choir declaring “Adam,” and in the ensemble, effectively doubling up as a mom, a waiter, and a cop, is Ryley Grace Youngs. “Good luck with the marriage thing,” she tells Ellie’s mom, adding, “I can’t say it worked out for me.

Having delivered an outstanding 2018/19 season (both Tuck Everlasting and the re-imaged version of Childsplay’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane were superior youth theatre productions) for the conclusion of its 30th Anniversary, and for the production chosen to open at the Herberger Center across town from its home base, VYT have capped things off spectacularly. From the live orchestra under Mark Feary’s direction to the energetic choreography of Nathalie Velasquez, this production exemplifies in all areas, technical and talent, the professionalism that truly is Valley Youth Theatre.

Disney Freaky Friday continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 30

Pictures Courtesy of Memories by Candace

Posted in Theatre

Shaft – Film Review

When his best friend dies of a drug overdose, John Shaft is suspicious. No, not the John Shaft, the bad mutha-f-bomb-dropper of seventies fame who was a sex machine to all the chicks. And, no, not Junior, the nephew who turned up in a 2000 thriller that most of us can’t really remember. It’s John Shaft lll, the boy that junior abandoned some thirty years ago, a millennial with a degree from MIT, a cybersecurity expert working for the man in the FBI, the one that doesn’t care for guns and who lives in a trendy brick-walled NYC apartment that looks like a display at Pier One Imports, that John Shaft.

Perhaps best referred to by its year of release, considering that out of the 5 films, three of them share the same title, Shaft (2019) centers not so much on the ethnic subgenre of blaxploitation that originated during the early seventies, or even the thriller aspects that underlined Shaft (2000). This new release is more action comedy, with the emphasis leaning heavily towards getting the laughs. What it’s actually about isn’t important – certainly, the writers didn’t seem to care – but the film presumably exists because someone thought it would be a great idea to have all three generations of Shaft on the case together. Which is what happens.

A friend is found dead, his body abandoned in a back street with a syringe on the ground nearby. But Shaft lll (Jessie Usher) is not convinced it was accidental, particularly when he gets the toxic report and shows it to friend and nurse Sasha (Phoenix valley native Alexandra Shipp). “The concentration levels are too high,” she tells young Shaft, explaining it would have been impossible for him to have injected that much into his body himself. “He would have overdosed before he got there,” she explains.

Wanting to clear his friend’s name and prove that his death was not an accidental overdose but murder, Shaft lll hunts down his estranged street-wise father, Shaft ll (Samuel L. Jackson), now a private detective, and asks for his help in solving a crime. “What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass need from me?” asks Shaft ll of his well-dressed boy.

The plot, as it evolves, becomes negligible. It all has something to do with the underbelly of Harlem involving a support group for war veterans called ‘Brothers Helping Brothers,’ a mosque that may or may not be a front for terrorism, a drug den, and a woman called Bennie (Lauren Vélez) who may or may not be a bad guy, but probably is. You won’t connect the dots as the two generations of Shaft try to work out who is doing what, to whom, and why. In fact, you might simply switch off rather than try to figure where things are heading and just let it all play out. It’s easier that way.

What the film is really about is getting laughs from the differences between son and dad and catching up with how things have changed for both of them since dad left the family unit in 1989. The important thing is, from Shaft ll’s point-of-view, in order to get on in this world and to get things done the right way – something that usually involves committing every human rights violation in the book – his boy needs to loosen up, shed some of that tight-ass whiteness about him, and learn to be a Shaft. When Shaft lll tells his dad he won’t hit a woman, dad can’t understand the difference. “I’m an equal opportunity ass-whooper,” he tells his boy with pride.

It’s not until the final act that the original Shaft turns up. Richard Roundtree as Shaft Sr. arrives for the big gun fetish shootout. There’s no denying the crowd-pleasing moment when all three generations swagger across the street, side by side, accompanied by an arsenal of weapons and that original heavy bass line borrowed from Isaac Hayes’ best-known work of ‘71. They’re there to get the job done, even though you might have forgotten exactly what that job is.

The film doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in plot, so why should you? But you will laugh, probably more than you would expect for a Shaft movie. Lord knows why, but hearing Samuel L. Jackson’s endless tirade of verbal abuse and foul-mouthed insults among the gunplay never grows old. When a computer-challenged dad explains how it is that he has a laptop in his office, he tells his son, “I won it in a game show called Beat the Shit Out of a Piece of Shit Drug Dealer,” then adds, “You get to keep that shit.” Can’t argue with that.  But enough with family reunions.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 110 Minutes

Posted in Film

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When the 2013 Sam Mendes directed stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first opened in London, the show was well received and ran for more than three years. In fact, it currently holds the record for the highest weekly gross of any production in London’s West End. Once it closed in 2017, the show moved to Broadway, but there were changes.

Several alterations resulted with the removal of characters (a mysterious tramp, Charlie’s father), there was a change of setting, a different open and close, and some of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs from the popular 1971 film were added to the new Scott Wittman/Marc Shaiman score. Plus, Jack O’Brien took over director duties. The result was mixed reviews at best and a closure after only nine months. But despite the Broadway loss, the show has done remarkably well while touring, proving once again that what doesn’t always work on the Great White Way can do gangbusters regionally. The production now on tour and playing at ASU Gammage until June 16 is the Jack O’Brien version.

Due to the enormous popularity of the Roald Dahl book and the ‘71 movie (perhaps less so with the later Johnny Depp version), it’s probable that almost everyone going in knows the plot and is already familiar with the outcomes. “Chocolate,” Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg) informs at the opening of the show, “Is the greatest invention in the history of the world.” Curiously, a plot point that was only revealed at the end of the film and came as a wonderful surprise actually begins the show. Wonka is looking for an heir to take charge of his famous factory, and the way to do that is to arrange a global contest for potential inheritors. Five golden tickets are hidden in Wonka bars around the world. Whoever is lucky enough to buy a bar with a hidden ticket will be invited to tour the factory with Wonka as their guide. Once there, the eccentric factory owner will make a decision.

Those four annoying kids, the spoiled brat Veruca (Jessica Cohen), the overstuffed sausage loving Augustus (Matt Wood), the snarky Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), and the anything but a shrinking Violet (Brynn Williams) are all there, ready for their downfall once they step out of line during the factory tour, while the good-hearted and dirt-poor Charlie Bucket (played at certain performances by either Henry Boshart, Collin Jeffrey, or Rueby Wood) and his Grandpa Joe (James Young) obey the rules – for the most part – and enjoy the ride.

The striking element about the production is the design. Individual sets, such as Charlie’s house, the candy store, and the individual areas of the factory itself, slide on and off, but it’s Jeff Sugg’s screen projections and the technology behind the theatre’s electronic frames within frames that grab attention. During act one, a steam train with smoke passes in the background behind Charlie’s shack, and when Charlie’s mom makes a wish and blows it into the air, a shooting star flies overhead as if carrying that wish to its destination. These moments help create a feeling of something magical occurring, but it’s the lavish (and expensive looking) explosion of color that comes in a virtual kaleidoscopic array and the following animation displayed during the second act within the factory walls that audiences will remember.

With a running time of 2 hours plus a twenty-minute intermission, the show is structured so that we never get to see the inside of the factory until the second act, which is another curious narrative element considering that what everyone is waiting for doesn’t come into play until the second half. The first act covers the worldwide chase for the golden tickets and who will win them while circling back to little Charlie’s home life in the derelict shack near the railway arches that he shares with his single-parent mother (Amanda Rose) and his four bedridden grandparents. “Are we still here?” asks a bewildered relative when all four wake up.

The energy and invention of Joshua Bergasse’s choreography are, as expected, first class, while Noah Weisberg’s Willy Wonka is mercifully less creepy and not quite so dangerous as Gene Wilder’s famous big screen portrayal. The character is considerably more humorous, as is the show itself, but with a much needed Roald Dahl styled black comic edge. When Mike Teavee gets impatient with the factory tour, he declares to his host, “Can’t you just kill another kid so I can get to the prizes?” And when Mike’s mother (Madeleine Doherty) hears the Oompa Loompas begin another tune, she cries, “Those little people are singing again. That’s never a good sign.” Though perhaps the best observation, and an appropriate one for members of the press in attendance on opening night, comes from Wonka himself when he says, “No one gets back to normal after they’ve been on TV,” then adds to the audience, “That’s a well-known fact.”

Having not seen how things looked across the pond, it’s difficult to make comparisons between the different productions, but two things are clear: name recognition and familiar tunes clearly make all the difference. Regional audiences are drawn by the name of the musical alone, and it helps that among the new, less memorable songs written for the show that popular classics such as The Candy Man, I’ve got a Golden Ticket, and the magical Pure Imagination are there to elevate matters. Without the emphasis on the attractive electronic visuals, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would seem like a box of plain confectionery. Changes and updates are usually intended for the better, but it does make you wonder what it was about the original Sam Mendes production that garnered the praise, the lengthy run, and the awards, while the newer reworked Broadway version closed early and received zero Tony nominations.

The national touring production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 16

Pictures Courtesy of Joan Markus

Posted in Theatre

The Addams Family – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Since its inception in 2009, the musical comedy of the family with a taste for the macabre, The Addams Family, has gone through so many tweaks and changes, depending on the venue, it’s probable that no two stagings were ever quite the same. Out of town tryouts smoothed some issues; an early run in Chicago resulted with more changes; the 2010 Broadway opening dropped much of the Chicago score and replaced it with new songs; while the following national tour restructured things even further, revising songs, re-arranging the orchestrations, and re-writing the book. The whole business concerning a giant squid called Bernice never left Broadway.

The version now playing at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until July 6 is closest to the revised touring production, which is a good thing. Having seen some of those previous stagings, the appeal of The Addams’ has always felt elusive. The show never worked. Yet somehow, with this new, handsome looking production at ABT, something has finally clicked. It’s as if all the things that were wrong with the musical before have fallen into place. And, of course, name recognition in regional productions means everything.

Make no mistake, The Addams Family will never be great musical theatre. Despite the tweaking and all the revisions, the score remains mediocre and the plot is still basic; it’s like a single episode of the TV show with one major conflict; a dinner party and its aftermath. The show assumes that everyone knows the creepy characters and their various peculiar mannerisms; there’s no backstory or introduction to individual characters or an explanation of how they became who they are. Instead, the book goes straight to the issue at hand.

Young daughter Wednesday (Jasmine Bassham) is in love and wants to marry, but her intended, a young mid-westerner called Lucas (Nick Williams) isn’t quite the sort Wednesday’s parents would welcome into the family. He’s normal. As Uncle Fester (Lionel Ruland) explains directly to the audience, the ghostly family ancestors will not be allowed to return to their graves until true love finds a way. Exactly how those spirits can help is never really clear, but their presence is always there, lurking in the Addams house, forever observing the unfolding events and joining in the songs.

Much of the dialog, while obvious, is still comical. When Gomez (a thickly accented Brad York who appears to be having a ball) and Morticia (a sexy, deadpan Renee Kathleen Koher in her best ABT role) reminisce of their first date when seeing Death of A Salesman, “How we laughed,” responds Morticia. Then there’s the groaner. When the parents reflect on how fast their daughter Wednesday is growing, Gomez adds, “She’ll be Thursday before we know it.” And best of all, when boyfriend Lucas (Nick Williams) explains what he does for a living to Gomez – he’s a medical examiner who enjoys looking inside dead people’s bodies – the head of the Addams household declares aloud with admiration to his daughter, “Where did you find him?

Why this Danny Gorman directed production works as well as it does is a simple matter of style over substance. The premise of The Addams Family isn’t so much a story, it’s a single comic situation that occurs in the first half and ties up all the misunderstandings in the second. But it’s the casting, the energy, Kurtis Overby’s fun choreography, Adam Berger’s excellent music direction, and the show’s overall design that surprises. Nate Bertone’s set, beginning with the decaying, crusty curtains that rise on a fog infested ancestral graveyard then opens up into the massive interior of the Addams’ mansion is outstanding, highlighted by Zach Blane’s lighting design.

Even more important is how much fun the cast itself appears to be having. “Ah, the intoxicating smell of the graveyard,” declares Gomez after a deep breath. Note that the role of Pugsley is played on alternate performances by Aaron McCaskill and Corban Adams. While all male leads are uniformly well cast, including Nicholas Dana Ryland as the zombie butler Lurch, and Mark Woodward as Lucas’ father Mal (“I think we’ve landed in weird city,” he insists upon entering the Addams mansion) the strength of the show is really due to the ladies.

In addition to the curvaceous Koher, Barbara McBain is a funny, feisty Grandma Adams (“My mother?” asks Gomez. “I thought she was your mother!”) while Lynzee Foreman as Alice stops the show with a very funny turn during the dinner table song Full Disclosure, proving that in addition to her top-notch singing and dancing, Foreman is also a talented comedienne. “You want to act like a tool,” she snarls at her husband, “Go and sleep in the shed!” But it’s Jasmine Bassham’s Wednesday that stands out.

The revised script from some of those earlier incarnations during the show’s tryouts now revolves more around the creepy teenager than the other members of the family, and Bassham infuses Wednesday with such appeal, it’s little wonder why an ordinary, likable guy like Lucas would be willing to overlook Wednesday’s weirdness of setting fire to a visiting Jehovah’s Witness and want to marry her. All together now, Da-da-da-dum (snap, snap).

The Addams Family continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until July 6, then moves to Herberger Theatre Center in Phoenix from July 12 until July 28.

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre

The Dead Don’t Die – Film Review

Let’s keep this brief. In director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, they really don’t, but you’ll wish they did.

In the small town of Centerville (a nod to Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels perhaps?) where the population totals 738 and the sign reads ‘A Real Nice Place,’ strange things are happening. It’s late in the evening yet it’s still daylight. Watches have stopped and cellphones have lost signals. Plus, as bespectacled Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and equally bespectacled Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) of the local police have discovered, radio contact with other cops is difficult. “Something weird is going on,” says the ever observant Ronnie. “Yeah, weird,” agrees the chief.  Evidently, nerdy black-rimmed glasses are part of the law enforcement uniform in Centerville.

And there’s more. The guy in the red ball cap that reads ‘Keep America White Again,’ Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) has noticed that his farm animals have disappeared. TV anchors are talking of pets acting strangely, the radio keeps reporting something about polar fracking gone wrong and how it’s affecting the Earth’s rotation even though, as the TV reporter acknowledges, “Fracking has created great jobs,” and everyone at the diner keeps wondering why the sun hasn’t set. “This isn’t gonna end well, Cliff,” warns officer Ronnie.

It all adds up to one thing, of course. Zombies. And it begins with two of them. Sara Driver and Iggy Pop drag themselves up from the dirt then slowly stumble their way out of the graveyard and stagger over to the town’s diner. As with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Jarmusch’s zombies appear to be drawn towards things or places they remembered when alive. Here the zombies stumble around town mumbling “Snapple,” or “Wi-Fi.” In the case of the first two who have entered the diner, their main interest is “Coffee.” At first, after inspecting the mutilated bodies of waitresses Fern and Lily left behind on the diner floor, Hank (Danny Glover) asks the chief and his officer if it could have been the work of wild animals. “I don’t know,” responds the chief, “But whatever it was, it even smashed the coffee pots.”

Played deadpan throughout, what may have been great fun for Murray and company to film – the lengthy cast of star names are all part of the director’s repertory – is hell to sit through. The po-face humor is initially mildly amusing, but once you realize that the self-referential barbs and the straight-faced elbow to the ribs remarks are not going to get any better, The Dead Don’t Die quickly loses the comic appeal of the trailer and the list of star names on the poster that enticed you into the theater in the first place.

Tilda Swinton plays oddball sword-wielding Zelda with an out-of-this-world payoff to her character that’s meant to come as a surprise but really doesn’t. “She’s strange,” states Officer Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). “She’s Scottish,” responds the chief as if the accent explains everything. And officer Ronnie’s mantra that things are not going to end well has nothing to do with detective guesswork or general morbid negativity. As he states while in the car with his chief, it’s because he’s read the script and knows how the movie ends.

Neither scary enough for a zombie horror nor funny enough for a comedy, the film opens with a shot of Centerville’s night of the living dead cemetery while the underused Selena Gomez and friends enter the town driving a vintage Pontiac Tempest. But in case you didn’t get the movie reference, local gas station worker Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) nods to the car by the pumps and states, “Super cool ride, by the way,” adding, “Really George Romero.

As a present-day satire with occasional current but pat political overtones, The Dead Don’t Die feels late for the party.  It might be Night of the Living Deadpan, but the joke was over a few movies ago. Despite the film’s title, these zombies are clearly DOA.

MPAA Rating: R       Length: 103 Minutes

Posted in Film