By Derek May:
YIN: The Dead Don't Die
The word “eccentric” is often bandied about in relation to artists, but in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s case, it fits like a well-worn glove. His sensibilities run a large gamut, everything from the dry intellectual to the hilariously absurd. His previous film works have been largely ignored by mainstream audiences and either beloved or derided by cinema aficionados. I myself find his pieces intriguing if often overly esoteric at times, and thus he’s been hit or miss for me over the years. So his choice to craft what seemed to be a silly-but-typical zombie comedy with the recent The Dead Don’t Die had me equal parts bewildered and excited.
The trailers portrayed a tongue-in cheek, fast paced, gag-filled farce with a superb cast, including perennial Jarmusch compatriots Bill Murray and Tom Waits. I was dying (get it!) to see how such a conventional film—the only one to receive a proper wide release in his 35-year career—might have sprung forth from such an auteur mind. In truth, the trailers were about half-right, as the film is very likely the most commercial and accessible work of his to date, but it’s also definitely a Jarmusch film and chock-a-block with his unique perspective and social insights.
The film is as much a homage to the zombie genre as it as a parody. It’s lovingly crafted to hit every trope while attentively subverting them at the same time. The film follows the befuddled attempts of a small-town police force in way over their heads after a shift in Earth’s axis causes the dead to return to life and feed on the living (as tends to happen). There’s plenty of gory, flesh-eating feasting and machete chops to the head, but Jarmusch prefers to layer in a heavy dose of social-satire. If Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has been cited as a commentary on consumerism, Jarmusch takes that ball and runs it the full hundred yards. While monstrous, the zombies here are often hilarious, mindlessly adhering to their social defaults even in death, such as obsessions with glowing phones, selfies, coffee, and, of course, chardonnay. Along the way, the director weaves in cautionary tales of environmentalism, comments on the roles and expectations of the genders, and even our current Trumpian issues with racism.
It all comes together a neat little subversive package that is highly aware of itself and what it’s trying to accomplish. In addition to the on-the-nose recurring gag of the film’s theme song, the catchy “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson (who cameos as an undead guitarist), there are several fourth-wall breaks that only add to the wonderful absurdity of the whole affair.
The assembled cast seems to be reveling in the chance to add a little meat to the genre’s undead bones. Bill Murray shares most of his screentime with Adam Driver, already a veteran now of many a surrealist independent film. The duo both play it pretty straight, but somehow still complement each other rather than just cover the same ground. Murray plays Cliff Robertson, the out-of-his depth Chief just trying to hold it together while Driver portrays Officer Ronnie Peterson, the confident young buck with a coldly detached perspective. The pair set each other up for some gut-busting laughs, especially Driver who decidedly holds his own with the comedy legend. Chloë Sevigny plays the third member of their ranks who has a decidedly less-controlled reaction to the situation, leading to her own fair share of laughs along the way.
One of the most unique characters, though, comes from Tilda Swinton’s Zelda Winston, the Scottish albino mortician with a penchant for Japanese culture and remarkably deadly skills with the samurai sword. If that sounds a bit odd, well, wait til you see comes out of it! Her role is yet-another charming aside that brings a whole new level of clever acknowledgement to the well-worn genre.
As foul-mouthed wilderness survivalist Hermit Bob, actor/musician Tom Waits is somehow left to provide the most sobering point of view in perhaps the entire film, an act of pure genius in itself. The remaining cast of stalwart thespians, including Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, RZA, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, and Selena Gomez, all serve to add some specific spice to the eclectic dish, which somehow manages to come together in a delicious balance of inimitable flavors.
Whether you’re a fan of the flesh-eating undead or of intellectual art-house fare, you’re likely to find a taste to your liking in The Dead Don’t Die. Equal parts engaging, comical, insightful, and crow-pleasing, Jarmusch may have finally found a piece to appeal to fans and first-timers of his work alike. There are enough hidden gems sprinkled throughout the film to warrant multiple viewings and repeated conversations amongst enthusiasts across genres. If you haven’t partaken of Jarmusch thus far, this is by far the most digestible entry. Give it a nibble, and I have little doubt it’ll satisfy more than one of your cinematic cravings.
YANG: Dead to Me
Laughing in the face of death is a time-honored human phenomenon. It’s one of our core coping mechanisms; and when done right, films and shows expressing that aspect are often beautifully cathartic. Netflix’s new original series Dead to Me is one such gem, interweaving the traumatic pain of loss with defiant hilarity and an honest portrayal of the stages of grief and guilt.
The series picks up on the heels of hard-nosed real-estate agent Jen (Christina Applegate) having lost her husband in a horrific hit-and-run. She meets effervescent sweetheart Judy (Linda Cardellini) at a support group, and the unlikely pair quickly form a unique bond over mutual tragedies. Ultimately, we learn there’s far more connecting them than a chance encounter, and that revelation sets off a chain of events with far-reaching consequences.
Now, from the trailers, I was expecting something of a comedic Single White Female vibe, but the series turns out to be far too clever for that. Writer/Creator Liz Feldman brings these characters a much deeper and far-more realistic journey. Jen and Judy are complex humans dealing with a vast gamut of emotions outside of their respective others, including with their friends, families, careers, and, yes, secrets. The conversations they have feel authentic and nuanced, and no level of progression through their tribulations is truncated or sidestepped. We get the full brunt of their issues, in all their sad, hilarious, and dramatic glory.
Outside of the exceptional friendship between these two women (which could be enough to carry the show alone), the plot has enough mystery, twists, and turns for your average soap opera. Jen is desperate to find the ones responsible for her husband’s death, even as she discovers he may not have been the man she thought he was. Judy finds herself torn between her emotionally manipulative relationship with her on-again-off-again partner Steve (James Marsden) and her attempts to cope with a serious mistake that threatens to ruin both their lives. Like I said, no punches pulled here. It drives me crazy to speak so cryptically for fear of spoilers, but it’s really worth the discovery as you experience the story unfold for yourself.
The magic here is the effective balance between plot and character, as they are so skillfully and intimately intertwined (as they should be). Feldman peels back layer after layer as the duo inch closer to solving the mystery, simultaneously ratcheting up the emotional stakes of such success. Given that and the ever-looming spectre of death, the show could easily become mired in melancholy. But just when you can’t take anymore, the show hurls a well-timed and often cleverly subtle joke or gag at you, diffusing some of that tension and endearing the characters to the audience at the same time.
Of course, that helps when you have veteran comedians in stars Applegate and Cardellini. I’ve adored Applegate since her Married . . . with Children days, and have followed her career enthusiastically since. The role of Jen makes perfect use of her varied skills, including that sharp, biting wit she uses to cut through every other character she encounters. Feldman even incorporated some of Applegate’s real-life into the show, including her dance background and even her well-publicized double mastectomy. But it’s a credit to Applegate’s enormous talent that she’s able to take such a surly, acid-tongued character and make her wholly sympathetic, even in her darkest and sometimes despicable moments.
Likewise, her partner in crime, Avengers star Cardellini, is the perfect polar opposite. I was first impressed by Cardellini’s heartfelt genuineness from her seminal role in Freaks and Geeks. As Judy Hale though, Cardellini plays a people-pleasing pushover that’s constantly apologizing while desperately trying to stand on her own two feet. There’s something just a little off with Judy, enough to keep you wondering what she’s truly capable of while still smiling at her infectious sweetness and over-abundant heart. Her seemingly constant stream of mistakes, often borne from her sincere but misguided attempts to correct them, are recognizable human flaws we can all relate to on some level. In addition, her desperation for love and connection is easily her biggest weakness, leading down ever-darker paths.
Cardellini and Applegate go toe to toe every episode like a classic comedy duo comfortably familiar with each other’s mutual quirks and timing. The characters are pure yin and yang, and thus their coming together feels as natural when they tear themselves apart. And yet, as an audience, we root for them every step of the way, even knowing it may all be doomed from the start. But it’s that sort of complexity and dichotomy that makes the show work so well.
The supporting characters are just as integral, often providing the spark that sets off a plot turn or emotional wrench. Marsden in particular is perfectly cast as the disarmingly charming Steve, a man as oily as he seems perfect. His ability to constantly keep the audience guessing as to Steve’s true intentions is one of the great coups of the series. And while domineering, he never overshadows the focus on the two leads.
Brandon Scott, another potential love interest, is a fascinating entry who serves multiple purposes and provides yet another broken character that gets caught up in the ensuing storm. Another veteran thesp, Young Sheldon’s Valerie Mahaffey, makes an impressive landing as Jen’s overbearing mother-in-law. And even the legendary Ed Asner makes an extended cameo as one of Judy’s most trusted confidants.
Dead to Me feels very much in the vein of another remarkable and near-flawless female-driven series, Russian Doll. Though similar in tone and quality, they are vastly different enough that it’s clear Netflix is not simply attempting to capitalize on one success with a carbon copy of another (as is all too common). Rather, it is providing a platform and taking a risk on out-of-the-box storytelling and focusing on the types of characters that don’t normally get nearly enough attention. Dead to Me once again got the zeitgeist talking, and it’s already been renewed for a second season. Given the intense cliffhanger ending of its first outing, there’s certainly plenty of ground left to cover, and the odd-couple protagonists have a lot of baggage still left to sort out. If they can but reach the high bar they’ve set with season one, I’m definitely looking forward to many more years, tears, and laughs in the seasons to follow.