Disney's A Christmas Carol

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This story is well-enough known that I will indulge in some spoilers, mostly because some elements of this movie are beautiful and innovative, and some just plain did not belong. The aggregate score makes it a rental, because the highs were very high, but the lows very low. First of all, all performance-capture technicians should be so lucky as to have a face such as Jim Carrey’s to use for source movement. Like Andy Serkis before him, Carrey has fine control of his expressions, and his entire physical instrument. As a result, the character of Scrooge is a wonder to behold. You can almost feel the veins pounding with ire behind his dessicated skin. Carrey plays him with real heart, real bile, real fear.

That said, why would you then skimp on every other character — even the other ones played by Carrey? Sure, Scrooge is the reason we’re here, but you spoil us with a rich, nearly photo-realistic performance and then bust out faces like the kid in the first Toy Story movie (admittedly with better texture mapping)? The uncanny valley looks all the deeper when you’ve got the mountain in the same shot. Also: stop making the characters look like their voice actors. Sure, it helps identify their player, but that’s what credits are for. When you give us Colin Firth’s voice coming out of a creepy Colin Firth waxwork, it’s even more jarring than say, Cary Elwes’ voice coming out of a portly stranger. OK, huzzah for the casting reunions from Princess Bride and Liar Liar. Give everyone with a substantial speaking part a new face and put a ton of dots on them too, or don’t do it at all. Poor Gary Oldman could really have worked Bob Cratchit to the maximum.

London is a beautiful place to fly a camera through when rendered with such loving Dickensian detail — people and streets, chamberpots and shops, sweeps and urchins. I imagine in 3-D it would be even more swooping and gorgeous. But then the creepy robots sing their stiff-mouthed carols — even with adorable character design they just disturb next to Scrooge’s twitching nasolabial folds.

The reason to remake this story in CG is to explore storytelling techniques that you couldn’t do as well or easily with live-action, right? Not just to jump on the 3D bandwagon. Right? Not just to find ways to poke things into the faces of the kids in the audience and go “Wooo Dickens is COOOOL!” Right? Of course I expect some expansion from the relatively intimate story, but some of these elaborate showcases felt like someone wished he made a different movie and decided just to keep the idea. I am glad I didn’t see it in 3-D because the camera poking was pretty egregious at times.

This Christmas Carol also doesn’t seem to know its audience. Between goofy chase scenes and glossing over some of the better poetry of the novel, and genuinely scary, profound moments of self-discovery on the part of Scrooge, I’d say they may also not have read the book. I would never take a child to see this — the sections with Jacob Marley and the spirit of Christmas Yet To Come are quite scary and effectively done. Future was portrayed as only a silent shadow, its bony hand sliding along reality to point the way for Scrooge…unless it pokes, black and glistening and fakey, into the 3-D realm, ruining the beautiful and haunting effect. After the Ringwraiths and Dementors and depictions of Death over a century of cinema, I was so pleased to see something different for Christmas Yet To Come…and then frustrated. Did I mention the ridiculous, gratuitous chase scene? Chase. Scene. Future does not chase you and shrink you and — Zemeckis!!!!!

The Ghost of Christmas Past was handled like a human candle, a creative and different interpretation of happier times and the ephemerality of memory. He and Christmas Present are also played by Jim Carrey (Future may have been as well, but there was no face to animate), and Past had an inexplicable Irish accent and a hissing whisper, the blame for both of which I can only lay on director Robert Zemeckis’ shoulders. It was such a lovely idea of a candle and then ruined.

And then we come to Christmas Present. As we know, Present is the boisterous, merry love-of-life spirit of jolly, earthy goodness and generosity. They got the general look of him right (oddly including the petulant forehead wrinkle that Carrey fans will recognize as his impish look, not his expansive humanity-loving look), but the booming warm laugh is instead incredibly horrible and fake and creepy. If this was meant to be a Scrooged-type cynical commentary on how artificial our seasonal bursts of kindness are before we slide back into 11 months of selfishness, well, it didn’t work. It looked bush league. His laugh was unsettling and creepy and not at all merry, and it ruined everything else: the cornucopia of generosity, the hale spirit astride the wonders of the world, and the truly lovely way he showed Scrooge his part of the spirits’ presentation. This scene would have been the most effective in 3-D, but if I had seen that petulant wrinkle shake out those kidnapper-van laughs in 3-D, I might have fled the building. Present repelled me right when he should have been washing us in the wassail of what Scrooge is missing. Again, this ancillary character wasn’t given full animation of his face, despite being based on rubberface Carrey.

I wish I could cut a montage of the sobering and well-thought-out segue from Present to Future, the swooping flights through London and Scrooge’s face. But I cannot. Wait to watch it at home with some warmth to ward off the chill.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 11/6.09

Time in minutes 96

Director Robert Zemeckis

Studio Walt Disney Pictures

Paranormal Activity

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Not unlike its inevitable comparison film, The Blair Witch Project, one of the most exciting things about Paranormal Activity is how while you are watching it, it feels real enough that you feel unsure whether it’s a movie or a found-footage presentation.  I dissected various actions and moments in the film, searching for the cinematic mechanical justification behind an action (for example, handling sound recording throughout an entire house) in the beginning, while this movie worked up its head of steam.  It played very naturalistically and felt justified and normal, and I was able to abandon myself to the fun.  (Or is it a snuff film?)  The whole film is 98% two people, Micah and Katie, shot entirely within their San Diego home (a very fancy one for persons of their apparent income level), shot completely with a fancy-but-still-consumer-grade digital movie camera.  It feels very much like what it purports to be — Micah wanting to capture on film weird things that have started happening to them in their home.

The performances are unselfconscious when appropriate and very natural, which is the most convincing aspect of the movie all around.  From their dialogue to their at-home wardrobe to their blood-curdling screams, it feels and sounds very real.  Also, the cinematography is consistent with that which would be managed by an online trader who just got a fancy camera, so if you had queasy problems with Blair Witch or Cloverfield’s shaky-cam, you might want to skip this one.  Realism and grounding everything else besides the actual scary thing in reality is what makes this film work.  If you can manage the shakycam it’s a very nicely crafted, slow burn of a scary movie.  It’s organic style means no hackneyed tension release mechanisms that sustain the audiences of most narrative horror films.  Ahhh!  It was only the cat.

The bursts of activity (paranormal) are varied and unpredictable and hit your various reptilian brain centers in different ways.  If you normally find X scary, but chortle your way through Y, you’ll get a dose of both.  The sound design also contributes a great deal to the proceedings.  A nearly-sub-aural rumbling announces that something is coming, and your body learns to tense up when it hears it.  (This was no fun at all driving home.)   It’s all very low-tech — some sounds could literally be a group of grips lifting and dropping a couch — and this makes it feel even more convincing.  Unearthly screeches or banshee music or gooey tentacles would kill the mood.  Nothing is scarier than what we can imagine for ourselves.  A creak of a stair caused by nothing we can see — heebie jeebies!

Katie and Micah are a believable, likable couple, knocking around their gorgeous, immaculate house, and they sell the smallest moments for full price, especially Katie.  Don’t bother holding out for a stinger at the end of the credits — that menacing rumble will only end with the MPAA rating.  Paranormal Activity is edited almost clinically, like an evidence tape, and with none of the framing or vanity-screen time Blair Witch sometimes betrayed.  I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not the scariest movie I have ever seen, but it’s probably the most efficient and insidious.  The noises in my house never seemed so loud or inexplicable as they do after seeing this.  It’s a great scary treat and the filmmakers should be rewarded with your business.

MPAA Rating  R-language

Release date 9/25/09 limited

Time in minutes 99

Director Oren Peli

Studio Paramount Pictures


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Like any proper spoof (not like Date/Scary/Epic/Dance Movies, actual
spoof), Zombieland serves also as an example of the genre it’s
spoofing. Unlike the inevitable comparison with the British Shaun of
the Dead, this movie feels less like a spoof and more like a
straightforward zombie movie with just some comedy thrown in. Zombie
movies already have some comedy in them, so the line between the
“serious ones” and this one is fine indeed. It’s funny, but it’s not
outrageous or satirical or genre-skewering or anything like that.
It’s more acerbic and snappy.

Told mainly from the perspective of Jesse Eisenberg’s character
“Columbus” (as in the destination in Ohio), we learn how a skinny,
neurotic drink of water like him has managed to be one of the few
survivors left after a truly cataclysmic spread of undeaditude. In
fact, our young lead’s reliance on the hard and true rules of
surviving a zombiepocalypse are pretty much what anyone his age or a
bit older (like, Woody Harrelson’s age) would already take as read as
how one would survive. Like Jamie Kennedy in Scream, Eisenberg sticks
to the basic principles and they work. His survival is thorough and
long-standing, more routine than terrifying at the point we join his
story. Throughout the movie, Eisenberg explains the various rules he
adheres to, which are then amusingly graphically presented and used as
visual punctuation whenever employed.

Naturally, others have survived by less meticulous but no less
effective means. He runs into the wonderfully over the top Woody
Harrelson, gleefully massacring his way across the country to find a
Twinkie. (It is funny to see Mr. Hemp and Compost firing a huge gun
out of a Hummer.) They later meet Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin,
jaded streetwise urchins all. They make their way through distrust
and moaning hordes to a huge set-piece finale, a hyperbolic spree
seemingly created as the central point of Zombieland. In fact, the
movie’s title and its focus on this climax makes me believe that the
whole movie was created just to bring us to the carnival of carnage.
Spoiler alert: zombies get blowed up real good.

Eisenberg’s character from Adventureland is now in Zombieland, with
only the wisdom of his numerous near-brushes with death. I almost
didn’t recognize Stone; she was a sexy teen vixen in Superbad, a
hopelessly tremulous nerd in House Bunny, and now she’s a cavalier
cool chick here. It’s funny/sad that her resume, if viewed by someone
who had seen none of these movies, makes her look like a B-Movie
bimbo. Stone’s chameleonic comedic capacity, her hot-yet-accessible
appearance, and the fact that all three of those movies were surprise
critical and audience hits — all this tells me that she’s in for the
long haul.

Harrelson is playing to his go-to tough redneck type, but with a comic
edge and a truly creatively brutal side. If the mayhem weren’t
against voracious undead cannibals, it would be disturbing. As it is,
it’s pretty much videogame level appreciation of the novelties of
application and the unapologetic hyperbole. And finally (well, not
finally, but we’ll leave that last survivor as a delicious marshmallow
surprise) we have precocious angel Abigail Breslin. Always acting
beyond her age, she’s one of the few 12 year-olds who can possibly
pull off her character’s deeply-ingrained cynicism and instincts. I
got flashes of her in Signs and Little Miss Sunshine while she rolled
her eyes at a poorly executed kill. Adorable.

Zombieland is a road movie, a little meta-commentary on zombie movie
mayhem, and an extremely violent and pretty funny comedy. Come on,
zombies, what more do you need?

MPAA Rating  R – zombie horror violence/gore and language.

Release date 10/2/09

Time in minutes 82

Director Ruben Fleischer

Studio Columbia TriStar

Your Friday Fix 7/17/09: Umineko no Naku Koro ni

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Umineko no Naku Koro ni

Genres: Horror, Occult, Mystery

Ratings L2 Ratings

Umineko no Naku Koro ni Image 1A pleasant breeze blows over the small private island, Rokkenjima, in the autumn of 1986. It’s the season for the annual meeting of the exceedingly wealthy Ushiromiya family. The family patriarch, Kinzo Ushiromiya, is nearing the end of his life and the family wishes to discuss plans for the family assets. Each of Kinzo’s children are heads of industry and all clamor for the reigns. A storm brews outside, ominous.

In a dark room, secluded from his squabbling offspring, Kinzo yells and thrashes about by a stormy window. He knows his end is near and entreaties Beatrice, a witch who granted him his families wealth, to return to him once more. Their deal is reaching its end, and the final bill come due. Outside… the most innocent soul on the island, Maria Ushiromiya, is left alone in the rain by her mother. She is increasingly despondent over her daughter’s odd mannerisms, but does not know how to control her anger of this situation. It is to this girl that Beatrice first appears.

Umineko no Naku Koro ni Image 2Gathered inside for dinner, the entire family continues to posture and plot. When the desert course comes, Maria stands and announces that she has a letter Beatrice wishes her to read aloud to the family. While every family member knows of this person by name, none truly believe she existed! Maria looks possessed as the addresses the gathered family. She informs them of the contract created between herself and Kinzo. She speaks of the wealth granted, and now what payment has come due.

The game set in motion, Beatrice (by way of Maria) informs everyone that she will take back her gold and everything the family owns as interest unless someone can uncover where Kinzo has hidden this wealth. In the foyer of the mansion exists all the clues they will need to complete this daunting task. There too, is a time limit on this game… overnight 6 people (four family members and two servants) are killed and mutilated. Their bodies are left in a shed, adorned with runes of a sort. The end of the Ushiromiya has only just begun.

Overall Hook Rating: A

Drag Me To Hell

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Oh, Sam Raimi.  You know you’ve made it when the unique flavor of your early low budget films still describes your core style even when you have a huge crazy budget (for another example of this see the films of Kevin Smith).  With Drag Me To Hell, Raimi makes a “classic” Sam Raimi movie, for better and for worse.  Mostly worse.  Drag Me is old-fashioned in interesting and unexpected ways, from the score to star Alison Lohman’s appliances to boyfriend Justin Long’s entire character, and including a general lack of commitment to any kind of modern sensibility of fun or scariness.  Plenty of things exist just to serve the film, in obviously silly ways.  Who else but a Raimi lead would have an anvil, much less store it hanging from a chain?  Especially a twenty-something girlie-girl mortgage banker girl.  Except for all the trademark gross-out silliness, this movie could have been released in 1960.  But then again, we DO have the trademark gross-out silliness: expectorating terrible things, shooting body parts at people and stuff at body parts, and icky embraces, with the camera at a 25 degree angle, is familiar to the point of near-impatience.  Don’t forget the mucus, very important.

As the heavy, we have a very spooky gypsy, played with ferocious sincerity by TV veteran Lorna Raver.  Raver seems to be trying so hard to legitimize her first major role in a motion picture, and by extension the rest of the movie, I feel bad about how little I enjoyed the film as a whole.  She herself is pretty enjoyable, until she’s forced to go along with Raimi’s particular fetishes.  Lohman does all she can, which is act pretty, determined, surprised, nervous, brave, helpless, etc. as called for by the hokey, dorky story.  At one point she’s desperate enough to break a cardinal rule of Good Guys, the next she can barely summon the brain power to operate a motor vehicle.  There’s nothing wrong with hokey or dorky as long as either the story is interesting (see: Fido) or the dorkiness serves a purpose (see: Showtime’s musical Reefer Madness).  What Drag Me To Hell fails to accomplish is an unselfconsciousness that would let the movie be fun rather than look like it’s trying to be serious while also trying to capture the campy fun spirit of a shoestring production (see: Evil Dead 2 for a Raimi counterexample).  By the time you have Justin Long trying to generate all the gravitas for what is ostensibly something very life-threatening and profoundly scary — “I don’t know what I believe in any more” — you’ve ventured beyond any possibility of self-parody into just lazy.  And no Bruce Campbell cameo?  Come on, you’re not even trying, Sam!

Drag Me To Hell is mildly scary at parts, slightly grosser than that in other party, occasionally novel (see aforementioned old-fashioned touches), often poky, and finally pays off with a terrible, frowny goat puppet.  I really can’t recommend it.  Despite the fact that I support the idea of comedy horror, I do generally ask that it contain at the very least either comedy or horror, both preferred.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/22/09
Time in minutes 99
Director Sam Raimi
Studio Universal Pictures

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Diary of the Dead

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George Romero. George George George. You created a mini-genre out of what was at the time an oddity: a monster movie (specifically zombies, for their unique properties) which also was a statement about modern day life. Countless follow-ups by you and others continued this trend and made Zombie Movies an event worth collecting friends for. You wrote the rulebook. You were a pioneer. Sure, Land of the Dead was a little dorky, but it was a hoot and a half. This Diary of the Dead of yours is just rewarmed leftovers from the past 13 years of filmmaking (from To Die For, as my sage companion noted, through Cloverfield).

One of the most tragic things about Diary of the Dead is the moments that are flashes of inspiration. It’s like someone sat down with a compendium of the lore and said, “Ok, what hasn’t been done?” and then did it. Our band of survivors being the cast of a student-grade mummy film? Awesome. A zombie dispatched at the same time its victim suicides with a scythe? Sweet. Um…there were a few others but I already can’t remember. My point is, the humor is always there, lurking under the surface, in any zombie movie, but here it’s used for evil rather than for good.

Our filmmakers are shooting a mummy movie (the original proto-zombie, yes George we know it was you who invented the modern-day zombie) and the world goes hooey. Nothing new there, of course. The MESSAGE is that the cameraman doesn’t stop filming, even when fleeing, even when seeing things that would make a sane person respond by perhaps fainting or screaming. The camera is passed between participants — even participants who yelled at cinematographer #1 to stop filming already — to get better coverage..

“But wait,” you might interrupt at this point. “You freaking LOVED Cloverfield. That’s the same thing.” And for the record, I enjoyed Blair Witch as well. For one thing, the latter two films used the cameras as if the character were really using the camera — dropping it, running with it, addressing it directly, sneaking around with it, dropping their camera hand to show the ground or their leg at a moment when a character would do that. The characters are filming in Cloverfield because they think there should be a record of this event, and also to remain emotionally detached from their terror, and out of Gen X-Y habit, perhaps as well. Later it’s their only connection to “not here.” In Blair Witch, of course, they were specifically documenting what happened to them in the woods, so it was more of an obligation to record everything even when it was a burden. Diary of the Dead is a hackneyed attempt to hijack that convention with none of the justification and all of the moralizing.

Also wrong with DotD: There are forced interviews and unaccountable hostilities among the players that are unclear. And then there are the horrible horrible characters who say terrible terrible dialogue just past the ability for us to mock them. There’s even an older, weary pseudo-statesman professor, British of course, whose dialogue literally smacks of narration no matter what he says. It hurts to watch. My companion recalled Gus Van Sant’s culturally prescient 1995 film To Die For, where Nicole Kidman’s character had a pathological need to be on television in order to exist (I am paraphrasing) and every meta-narrative since then has been more and more diluted from that message. See also: the reality-TV boom.

Diary of the Dead, even for zombie diehards like my little group (we watched Shadow: Dead Riot, for pete’s sake), was not very good at all. I mourn. The rating is Catch the Network Premiere for the few bits that were fun and creative, but it will never be on network television, so…

MPAA Rating R-strong horror violence and gore, pervasive language
Release date 2/15/08
Time in minutes 95
Director George Romero
Studio Dimension Films

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Sweeney Todd

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The moment this film was announced, theatre freaks and Goths clenched up in anticipation. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Really, probably only Guillermo del Toro could come close to being a second viable choice to helm this project. At least we know they will get how very epic and dark Sweeney Todd should be. My companion and I, Sweeney fans who have each worked on a production, could track every change. We could applaud the necessary and difficult cuts (Parlor Songs) and puzzle over the omissions (the chorus part in God, That’s Good). Fans, a spoiler: there is NO chorus part, and it is indeed distracting. That said, because we know were every neon-red drop of blood was meant to fall, the screenplay choices were not troublesome in terms of following the story. I would love to hear from someone not familiar with the show on this.

But how is it, you press urgently. I confess I had trouble because of certain favorite moments being eliminated – an unfair assessment of the film as its own work, I grant. The sets are gorgeous – grungy, dark, evil, stylized, but still solid. The costumes and makeup (save Johnny’s synthetic white streak, wicking away blood like so much rainwater) are richly layered in desaturated squalor and grime. It is a lifeless, dreary London, through which blood boils like, well, a city on fire. (Yes, omitted).

Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both simply too beautiful and young looking to fully inhabit these roles visually. Depp certainly has the wild-eyed intensity that is needed, and Bonham-Carter has the doe-eyed cleverness and wit. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as the Beadle? Perfection. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli – I knew he would nail the quick patter and fey flamboyance, but could he sing it? Yes! My companion had troubles with his overly impeccable accent work (my trouble was with Bonham-Carter’s wispy diction) but he made Pirelli the hilarious rat he needs to be.

Newcomer Jayne Wisener (Johanna) is a china doll of a gal, a slip of a girl who opens her cherubic mouth and gives her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” solo wings I never knew it had when sung by older voices. Another newcomer, Ed Sanders as Toby, steals the show from the big names by being perfectly earnest and vulnerable and singing his hard songs with real beauty. Finally, as Jonathan, Jamie Campbell Bower seems too young and pretty to be the lovestruck sailor, but his sweet voice helped prop up Sondheim’s difficult score where the amateurs flag a bit. All of these folks, when I saw them listed, seemed far too young, but this film showed me that they were really more age appropriate than the grownups that usually limn their roles on stage.

Oh wait, who am I forgetting? Right, Depp and Bonham-Carter. I confess I am very sad that Depp’s tenor cannot grab you by your crumpet in the same way a full baritone can. The whole score felt like the bass section had been discreetly snuck out of the back door, robbing the instrumentals of much of their oomph. His pitch, his styling, his acting-while-singing is all great, it just felt wan compared to the material. Bonham-Carter’s voice for the most part is soft, reedy, and precisely clipped, not brassy or balls to the wall either. In a duet with Toby, it’s a lovely effect, but in the darkly comic “A Little Priest” (best staging ever!) it lacks gravy. She and Johnny both sang out at one point and I got excited, hoping for more.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a musical, but even at its most Broadway, it’s no Oklahoma, It’s dark, dissonant, miserable, and brilliant. Come on, murder, cannibalism, abuse, revenge, depravity, all in song? Burton goes a step further, removing any inorganic group singing and keeping it intimate, close, tiny. At first this drove me bananas. Why do I see a movie of a musical if not to see MORE HOT PIES? But upon spirited reflection with my wise cohort, we found it to be (paradoxically) more centrist despite its extreme themes. Musical-haters don’t have to endure glorious kicklines of strangers (I’m looking at you, Hairspray) and opera lovers can focus on the leads’ close-in performances. Burton also eludes the disease that made his Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not quite gel.

As an added bonus, if someone sees the movie and then goes to see a stage production, the play will blow their brains open because it won’t be in the shadow of Biggest Production Ever from the silver screen (I’m looking at you, Chicago). Burton’s Sweeney Todd is very different, but it’s a solid movie.

MPAA Rating R-graphic bloody violence
Release date 12/21/07
Time in minutes 117
Director Tim Burton
Studio Dreamworks / Warner Brothers

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The Number 23

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Jim Carrey has made many brave choices, as do so many comedians who parlay their comic skills into acting, and The Number 23 is one of them. I am a noisy advocate of his dramatic work, and this first time he attempting a psychological thriller is a departure from his previous excellent choices. Walter Sparrow (Carrey) seems fated to find this clumsy little self-published thriller, which touches things inside him he never dreamed existed. The idea of where this movie ends up is an interesting one, and it could have been a great one but for one minor quibble: some of the plot devices that get him there are absolutely ridiculous. For this I blame Joel Schumacher. Nutty twisty thrillers like Seven or The Silence of the Lambs often require the audience to make insane leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief higher than a musical adaptation of Harry Potter. The trick is making you forget the machinations that brought you that incredibly unlikely conclusion (and then you forgive). The Number 23 drops all kinds of whizzbangers into the story line, all of which could have been forgiven if they weren’t so blatantly swept under the rug, like someone hiding their garbage behind a potted plant when you come to visit.

So, the number 23 has some cosmic significance, or else it’s one of those things that when you look for it you find, but in reality is no more common than any of the other significant numbers in our base 10, 360 degree culture. The calisthenics one must go through in order to come up with this “ever present” number are insulting, but the idea is good enough that you can go with it for the sake of the story. The idea that a number can get inside your head, haunting you, cursing you, has already been embraced and popularized by Lost (and 23 is one of those 6 numbers, so…..) so that is a fun idea being taken in a new direction: instead of being bad luck, it can actually change who you are (into someone evil, perhaps?), which is an interesting plot idea. All good so far.

Joel Schumacher, who if nothing else knows how to make the banal stylish (exhibit A: The Island), takes the real-life cast and casts them as the leads in the book Walter is reading, which is cool, since it’s relevant to how he interprets the book. The fun, stylish part is how over the top cornball pulp he does it all, with swooping zoom shots that transition from one place to another in sexy, push-color ways, hokey crime novel dialogue, and smoldering sexual movement everywhere. It’s neat to see Jim in regular guy mode (never has he been as successful at hiding wacky Jim except in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and then in intense dramatization mode. Sometimes it’s so stylish it’s hackneyed or embarrassing, but most of those moments are in the context of the novel, so we can forgive that as well.

And then the third act starts. Clumsy explanations, ridiculous cover-ups and lack of paper trails (or cell phones) make the real-life people in the story (especially with their old-fashioned names like Agatha and Walter) seem straight out of a gumshoe rag in their primitive inability to manage the events in the backstory. And my god, who names their son Robin Sparrow? It’s like a bad joke. Bud Cort makes an uncredited cameo as a person whose entrance and exit from the story is like a deus ex machina when Zeus takes the day off and lets a temp handle the machina duties. Oh I wish I could tell you the thing that made me the craziest with annoyance, but suffice it to say, you could catch this on HBO and not feel like you missed much except some interesting sound design.

MPAA Rating R- violence, distrubing images, sexuality and language
Release date 2/23/07
Time in minutes 95
Director Joel Schumacher
Studio New Line

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Land of the Dead

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Directed by the granddaddy of the zombie genre, George Romero, Land of the Dead had the potential to be step backward in zombie expectations, or a satisfying new chapter in the genre. It is a viable genre, my friends. Zombie movies have the unique ability to be terrifying, gross, hilarious, and intellectual without diluting any of these qualities. The best zombie movies take what is really a simple formula (boy eats girl, girl eats another boy, boy chases you) and make it new again.

Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead defined what it is to be a zombie movie, and since then countless imitators have shuffled, (or, lately, ran) in his footsteps, hoping to make this very movie. Land of the Dead is old-school: the zombies shuffle, kill with a bite, and stop only when the brain is destroyed. This time, however, Romero’s “hero” is a semi-sentient undead gas station attendant who obeys, yet also stretches, all the zombie rules. This paragon of putrescence is Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) and he makes this land of the dead a whole new ball game.

We know all the rules already. Romero isn’t going to waste time developing the universe he has spent so many years creating, no sunny pre-infestation exposition or didactic “Zombie Killing For Dummies” speeches. If this is your first zombie movie, I imagine you can still figure it out. They’re here, they’re smears, get used to it, oh and kill them. Romero has no more reason to explain this Land than Woody Allen has reason to explain the unique craziness of New York City. And awayyyy we go!

Romero’s previous works have also, under the rotting surface, also been about something more. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was about race relations. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was about conformity and consumerism, and Day of the Dead (1985) was about militarism. What is Land of the Dead about, 20 years later? Terrorism? Freedom? Privatizing Social Security? I would say it’s about material distraction, or the chasm between the haves and the have-nots and fringes of society. You have to pay the fiddler his green, right?

Of course, the moment you see Dennis Hopper, you know he’s the Establishment Honcho. (How the Easy have fallen.) I likened him to Rupert Murdoch, but Hopper himself has said he was going for a Donald Rumsfeld vibe. I’m feelin’ it. Hopper’s obvious role aside, the best thing about Land is the lack of clear factions. I mean, yeah, we’re all fighting zombies, but they have a certain victim’s dignity about them next to these fatcats in their fancy tower. What about the underprivileged but still living lower classes? Who’s good, who’s right? It’s often, but not always clear whom to root for, and that level of murk keeps things interesting. Oh yeah and man are there some gross happenings in this one. Romero hasn’t let the kids today show him up one bit.

For those of you who might be searching as we were for the cameos by Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, just look for the Polaroid camera. Land of the Dead is a lot of fun, and grosser than all get out. It’s a blast. Uurrrgggghhhhhh!

MPAA Rating R-violence, gore, language, drug use, brief sexuality
Release date 6/24/05
Time in minutes 93
Director George Romero
Studio Universal Pictures

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Open Water

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I wish I could be the first to assess this genuinely scary movie as The Blair Witch Project in the Caribbean, but I have been beaten to the punch. Everything that worked for Blair Witch (video, small cast, complete isolation in the middle of nowhere) is at play here, with the added implacability of sharks, creatures that exist, for sure and don’t need lasers mounted on their heads to be scary. I don’t know what the Blair Witch is, but I know what sharks are. And they are so, so silent.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are the unfortunate couple who bobbed for most of the film in the water. They are a normal couple, with normal fights and normal stresses, in terribly extraordinary circumstances. You’ve seen the preview, you know they’re bobbing alone and unmissed in the deep blue sea. What you can’t know until you see it is the agonizing buildup of tension, the apprehension that accompanies any change in their situation.

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