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Saturday
Feb062010

Diary of the Dead, 2007 (Home Video Review)

TrainREC

George Romero needs to stop. It’s been about forty years since he defined the “zombie” horror sub-genre with Night of the Living Dead, and twenty-five years since he made a zombie movie that was worth a damn (Day of the Dead). Sure, he tried to make a comeback with the chronologically deficient Land of the Dead in 2005, but it was such a slick, action-packed spectacle that it became an altogether different type of film; Land also jumped the shark on Romero’s trademark social commentary, ending, literally, with an “eat the rich” bloodbath. After that movie, it was clear the writer/director had run out of fun things to do with the walking dead.

Which is why watching 2007’s Diary of the Dead was such a chore. Romero rightly believed that his franchise could use some updating; he was wrong to assume that (poorly) aping The Blair Witch Project was a good creative decision.

The conceit of Diary is that it’s a film cut together using footage taken by University of Pittsburgh (Ontario campus) students in the first days of the zombie apocalypse. This collection of hip, ridiculously attractive kids are making a mummy movie out in the woods when the first reports of zombie attacks come in over the radio. Soon they’re driving a Winnebago across the state—with their drunkard professor in tow—trying to reach their respective homes, capturing everything on a pair of what look to be big, clunky TV cameras.

Diary of the Dead has three major problems. The first two are the acting and dialogue, which make the movie nearly unwatchable. The group of kids tries way too hard to bring really bad writing to life; it’s as if they believe Romero’s monologues about pervasive media (“If it’s not on camera, it isn’t real”) are too profound to be understood by the audience, so they over-emphasize EVERYTHING. The constant asides and obviousness bog down the film’s first hour, which might have been okay if the third issue were not so glaring.

Whereas Romero’s first three zombie movies used amazingly gruesome practical effects, Diary of the Dead suffers from an over-reliance on CG gore. Worse yet, one can tell that the digital effects ate up so much of the budget that the practical stuff was apparently left to half-drunk interns. All of the gunshots-to-the-head look like they were generated with the default settings of an After Effects plug-in, and the zombie makeup and eviscerated body cavities could have been pulled from behind the counter of a costume store. Part of the joy of watching the original zombie pictures was marveling at how wizards like Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero pulled off such believable kills; Diary comes off as a tutorial in an on-line film course.

The most frustrating part of the movie is that the last half hour is much better than anything that preceded it (including Land of the Dead). By the time the group holes up in a rich friend’s fortified mansion, most of the annoying cast has been killed off. The owner of the house, Ridley, has gone insane and still roams the halls wrapped in the mummy costume from their movie. It’s here that Romero recaptures some of the claustrophobic magic of Night of the Living Dead; he even makes his media concept work, via omnipresent surveillance cameras, which are put to good use in the story. However, not even the last act is immune from idiocy, as the script calls on the characters to act in ways that defy belief for the sake of padding a pretty slim run-time.

In the years since Diary of the Dead, two films have come along and fared much better with the concept. Cloverfield set the bar for the authentic-feeling “found footage” monster movie (I thought the characters were kind of annoying until I watched Diary), and Paranormal Activity dialed back the visceral shocks in favor or more subtle scares. What the creators of both films understood is that the foremost point of a horror movie is to take the audience on a terrifying, believable ride; it’s not to hit them over the head with generic anti-establishment ideas and rely on the “gee-whiz” niftiness of modern technology.

George Romero has been known to complain about studios not giving him enough money to make the really big zombie movies he has in his head. Based on his last two pictures, I’d say they’re justified in holding back. Romero needs to revisit the simplicity of Night, Dawn, and Day. He knows how to direct tense scenes and get great performances from real (read: adult) actors, and it was the lack of money that led to some of the most memorable splatter moments in horror history—because his crew had to be inventive, instead of simply able to press a “Render” button. If he decides to work in the zombie genre again, I would suggest that he direct someone else’s material; specifically, Max Brooks’s superb novel, World War Z. Otherwise, he really should just stop.

Note: Perhaps the worst offense in Diary is the sloppiness of one particular scene in which the kids encounter a black militia that has taken over a small town. Their leader claims that anyone “without a natural sun tan” fled when the outbreak began. Yet, ten minutes later, this smiley, creepy looking white guy is helping our filmmaking heroes load canned goods into their mobile home. This makes less sense than the movie-length suspension of disbelief that a guy would not once put down his camera to help people (including his friends) in immediate danger—a problem Cloverfield solved a year later.

Tuesday
Feb022010

Dark Star (1974)


Please Tweeze Me

A friend recommended Dark Star, saying that it was a great satirical comedy. I did a double take and asked him to clarify. “It’s like Dr. Strangelove in Space”, he said, thoroughly confusing me.

I’d heard about the film a few years ago, but had never checked it out. I knew it was John Carpenter’s first movie and, last December, that it was Alien writer Dan O’Bannon’s first film as well (he died in late 2009). Carpenter is known mostly for directing horror movies, so I just assumed Dark Star was one; the idea that he started out in sci-fi comedy was enough to immediately place it at the top of my Netflix queue.

Dark Star is definitely a comedy, but I can only recommend it cautiously. First of all, it’s an early-Seventies student film (more accurately, it’s an expanded version of a student film), so for anyone unable to appreciate pre-Jurassic Park special effects, stay away. Second, the humor reminds me of the kinds of things my really smart friends in high school would die laughing over; it’s catnip for science geeks, Monty Python fans and Dr. Who devotees. Lastly, all of the actors have these crazy Castro beards! This isn’t a valid criticism, I know, but I really wanted to reach out and shave these people.

Dark Star tells the story of an eponymous space ship that tours the galaxy, blowing up uninhabitable planets to make way for corporate development. When the four-man crew isn’t traveling from sector to sector planting talking, self-aware bombs, they wrestle with boredom, talk about surfing, and contend with their alien mascot—a gigantic beach ball with the hands of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dark Star isn’t plot-driven so much as it is a series of witty vignettes that reveal character and lead to a logical conclusion (wait, isn’t that the definition of a plot? Shit.).

What’s most striking about the movie, aside from its incredibly smart humor and ideas, is the crew that created it and the groundbreaking work that went into the production. It may seem unfair to break objectivity here, but it’s impossible for fans of genre filmmaking to not consider these things when watching Dark Star today. Carpenter and O’Bannon (who co-wrote the picture, created the effects, and stars as crewman Pinback) bridged the SFX gap between Kubrick’s 2001 and Lucas’s Star Wars. I’d always assumed that the Millenium Falcon was the first ship to make the jump to hyperspace, but, no, it was the Dark Star; it’s stunning to see those warping star fields done just as well on a fraction of the budget. O’Bannon would, in fact go on to do effects on Star Wars three years later—two years before Alien came to the big screen.

Alien is probably the biggest recipient of Dark Star’s conceptual generosity. The beach ball monster is a quirky ancestor of the xenomorph that terrorized Sigourney Weaver: an eye-less, leaping beast that hides in the ductwork and attacks the crewmembers’ heads. There’s also a bizarre scene in the climax involving a visit with the ship’s deceased captain, whose body has been suspended in a block of ice while his brain lives on, in thoughts interpreted through a computer. The scene reminded me instantly of the cut scene in Alien, where Tom Skerritt is cocooned half-alive in the ship’s wall.

I should really mention John Carpenter’s contributions here, as it is, technically, his show. What struck me the most is how easily the director managed to turn comedy into suspense, particularly in the scene where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft. What starts as a funny gag, goes on for minutes; the duration takes us from amusement to claustrophobic panic in a beat, much as the situation must have occurred to Pinback. It’s here that Carpenter sheds the skin of Kubrick and promises us films like Halloween and Escape from New York.

Dark Star is a great, brisk little movie. If any of what I’ve written sounds appealing, you’re likely to enjoy a really fun 83-minute ride. If none of this interests you, I have a feeling you checked out at the phrase “Dr. Strangelove in Space.”

Sunday
Jan312010

Edge of Darkness, 2010

The Detarded

I approached the “edge of darkness” several times during Mel Gibson’s new movie, which is to say I had a hard time staying awake. Never have I seen such an interesting cast in such a well-shot picture slog through such a boring 108 minutes.

Edge of Darkness stars Gibson as Boston (sorry, “Baaah-stin”) detective Tommy Craven, whose activist daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is gunned down on his front porch by a masked assailant. It turns out Emma worked for a private defense company whose CEO is in league with the government to produce allegedly foreign-made weapons on U.S. soil (a sort of back-pocket pre-emptive strike option, I guess). Emma and three environmental activists tried to get evidence of the crime and were subsequently killed. Of course, we don’t learn any of this until about an hour into the movie, as we’re introduced to myriad superfluous characters and red-herring sub-plots that involve Tommy leaving behind police protocol and busting heads.

If this sounds like a throwback to the good old days of Lethal Weapon, it’s not. Lethal Weapon was a mystery that had the good sense to stay on course and provide lots of crazy action and violence, letting the audience believe that they were experiencing thinking-man’s ‘splosions. Edge of Darkness gets bogged down in shabby knife fights and face punches in the service of about five thousand pointless conversations between actors who are either undeserving of sharing the screen with their co-stars, or are too good and too embarrassed to deliver their clunky lines. About an hour’s worth of scenes could be trimmed from this movie and the central story and decent surprises would still be just as effective. Edge of Darkness is too dumb to be a good political thriller and not exciting enough to be an action movie.

And that’s a real shame, considering director Martin Campbell gave us the superb Casino Royale, a movie that, while over-long, managed to excite the mind and the pulse. Here, the material he’s trying to bring to life is a convoluted mash-up of the man-on-a-mission revenge fantasy. Tommy’s frequent visions of his daughter as a young girl and the intermittent presence of a shadowy enforcer named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) are meant to add weight to the picture, but they pop up too often and add absolutely zero forward momentum to the story. So instead of being moved or intrigued, we’re left to marvel at Winstone’s pronunciation of the word “daughter”, which comes out, “doe-uh”. I mean, I know he’s a great English actor, but here he comes off as an Eastern Kentuckian doing Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Speaking of distractions, whose genius idea was it to put Mel Gibson into so many scenes with actors who are waaaay taller than he is? And is everyone in Boston obsessed with Ginger Ale? Is that a local thing I’m not hip to? Why did Martin Campbell waste so much time and money on the scene where Tommy gets knocked out in his kitchen, kidnapped and taken to a nuclear facility only to awaken, knock out the guards and return to his kitchen (in the span of three minutes’ screen time)? Sorry, all of this went through my head while I was busy not being stimulated by the events on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that Edge of Darkness is based on a mini-series; in my opinion, there’s just enough plot to flesh out a decent episode of 24. I left the theatre angry, tired and confused. Some have hailed this movie as Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to acting. If that’s the case, I hope he remembers that some of his greatest roles were buoyed not by macho bluster and handguns but by screenplays that knew the difference between a well-scripted cover-up and gratuitous diversions meant to cover up weak writing.

Sunday
Jan242010

Moon (2009)

Lunar Eclipse of the Heart

This will be my shortest review to date. Not that there isn’t a whole lot to talk about regarding Duncan Jones’s marvelous indie sci-fi picture, Moon; I just don’t want to over-sell it or over-discuss it before every last one of you has had the chance to see it for yourselves. It’s not a perfect movie, but I’m giving it my highest “Go See This Now” recommendation.

I’ve never seen a film like Moon before. The best way I can describe it is as a sort of alternate-universe prequel to Alien, by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, a technician for Lunar Industries whose job it is to oversee a rock mining plant on the moon. In the future, you see, scientists have discovered a way to harvest solar energy via moon rock and solve many of the world’s problems; trouble is, that someone has to mind the store—alone, for three years at a time.

Sam spends his off-hours exercising, carving wood models of his old neighborhood and talking to Gerty, the plant’s robot manager (voiced by Kevin Spacey, and lent personality via a series of revolving smiley-face cartoons on a computer screen; he’s the Human Resources version of HAL). Two weeks before his contract expires, Sam is involved in a terrible accident when his lunar truck rams into one of the remote drills. He awakens back inside the plant’s infirmary with only vague memories of the crash. Lying in bed, listening to Gerty’s reassurances, he notices someone else in the room; in fact, it’s a younger, healthier version of himself.

When I first heard about Moon, I thought that Sam’s having a clone was a major spoiler. But it turns out to be the plot’s catalyst, which leads to several other surprises. The film deals with issues of identity, memory, corporate ethics, and, above all, loneliness in utterly gratifying ways. Sam Rockwell does wonders with this role, playing all aspects of a human personality without ever hamming it up. The highest credit goes to Duncan Jones, though, who uses his effects team and body double to make us believe that two Sams can not only share a scene but also brawl when tempers flair.

If you’re a fan of Alien and 2001, you’ll understand my earlier comment about the converging storylines, after you watch Moon; I’m not just referring to the set design, which looks like the prototype for the Nostromo’s interiors, but also to the ideas and their logical progression, if one thinks of these films as occupying the same fictional universe. Hell, even if you don’t buy that theory at all, if you’re a lover of smart, well-acted movies that keep surprising and rewarding you, check out Moon.

Note: It’s fitting that Trudie Styler (Sting’s wife, and the star of Fair Game) should be one of the producers on this movie. Not only does she have experience playing a person trapped in a confined space who gradually goes insane, she also comes off as genuinely bat-shit crazy—which is the only way to explain Moon’s final couple of minutes, which, incidentally, I didn’t care for at all.

Sunday
Jan242010

The Book of Eli (2010)

The Blessed and the Furious

After having waded through two previous apocalypse movies, The Road and Legion, I went into The Book of Eli with a heavy heart. How many more washed-out, burned-out landscapes, cannibalistic biker cannibals and messages about keeping the fire burning could I stand? It turns out the answer is, “a lot”. This is a really good movie, and I’m glad I caught it in the theatre.

Denzel Washington plays Eli, a wanderer in an America ravaged by a thirty-year-old nuclear holocaust. He’s been charged with delivering the last known copy of the King James Bible to an unspecified destination “out West”, and his journey is fraught with starvation and blood-thirsty marauders; the latter is not that big a deal, since Eli is quite handy with all manner of firearms and his trusty sword, which he uses to hack to pieces anyone who dares not leave him alone. He’s a post-Matrix-era warrior monk, who can quote scripture and lop off hands with equal ease.

The last leg of his quest brings him through a town run by a man called Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie, as luck would have it, is on a mission to find the Bible so that he can revitalize religion in America—that is to say, using the words to manipulate hope-starved suckers (his words, not mine); once he discovers that Eli has the book, he sets all of his goons after it, and the rest of the movie plays out as a series of chases and showdowns between Carnegie and Eli—and Eli’s step-daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), who wants to believe in the words Eli has read to her. The Book of Eli takes plenty of cues from the classic Western and infuses the genre with modern warfare and sticky philosophical quandaries.

Is Eli crazy? Or has he really felt the touch of God? The movie gives clues but, in the end, remains fairly agnostic on the issue (that is to say, if you’re pro-religion, you can definitely read into some of the things that happen; if you’re not, some of the explanations—though far-fetched—kind of hold up to scrutiny). The screenplay breaks from the ultra-cool, violent fight scenes to deliver ruminations on faith and human nature from many of the main characters; but this isn’t a platform picture: I never got the feeling that I was being preached to. Some may disagree, but those are likely the same people who bristle at the mention of the word “God” in any context. The ultimate fate of Eli’s book, specifically, the actual place it ends up, is both a chilling and a hopeful image, bringing to mind man’s noble intentions and his ability to royally fuck things up.

The story would probably only be so-so were it not for the wonderful cast. Washington and Oldman are great actors and it’s nice to see them not phone in their performances on what could have been a dusty, talky action picture. Washington in particular really sells Eli’s fatigue and reluctance; he’s a murdering Christ figure, and we get to see the turmoil of that paradox every second he’s on screen. Mila Kunis is serviceable as Solara; I always felt like she was acting—which, to be fair, is inevitable when sharing the screen with seasoned pros. And I’ve got to mention Jennifer Beals as Solara’s mother and Carnegie’s long-suffering blind wife; her performance is remarkable, the stand-out of the film because it was so unexpectedly affecting.

The Book of Eli has received a lot of criticism for the ludicrousness of its premise, its heavy-handed religiosity, and the hypocrisy of its central character. I call foul on all points (my only gripe is that the whole film looks like it was dipped in bleach). This is a thoughtful and exciting film that reminded me a great deal of my go-to apocalypse drama, Children of Men. While there’s a considerable difference in gravitas between the two, they share a refusal to hand the audience all the answers and demand patience and consciousness. In return, both films provide entertainment that one can take home and reflect on, in the presence of or in the absence of faith.