Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Romero’s 2000s-Era Zombies

Diary of the Dead

Though its commentary is sometimes weak (or too obvious), Diary of the Dead uses the camcorder-shot footage to great, frightening effect. There’s a real function behind the form, unlike Cloverfield, Quarantine, and other gimmicky “video-taped” films.

Romero goes back to the basics of what made Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead so scary: he focuses on just a couple individuals who are surrounded on all sides by zombies. Land of the Dead was an interesting–though ultimately unsuccessful–departure from this style, but Diary of the Dead puts the horror on the individual once again, and it works.

Like I said, the commentary is obvious…but the film works as a nice, scary zombie film (something which, judging by all of the horrible zombie films I’ve seen lately, is much harder to pull off than it seems).

Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead is probably the worst zombie film that George Romero has directed, which is really saying something: when I was in a fraternity as an undergraduate, I used to haze my “little brother” by making him watch Day of the Dead, the atrocious, humorless, mean-spirited gore-fest from the early ’80s about zombies in a military installation.

Romero has made six of these zombie movies, and I suppose it’s a testament to his creative ability and imagination that he’s found a way to continue making them new and fresh and interesting over the course of thirty or forty years…Land of the Dead was an ambitious look at a post-apocalyptic world that has developed a new ruling class, and Diary of the Dead was a fantastic Cloverfield-esque approach to zombies, even offering some social commentary on the YouTube Generation…but Survival of the Dead is the first time where I’ve actually thought that Romero was out of ideas.

Nothing in this film feels inspired. The special effects are poor. The characters are thin and often resort to repeating the same one-liners over and over again. The sets and settings are badly established and poorly filmed. The script is comically bad. This feels less like a creative effort than it does the fulfillment of a contract. It’s like everyone is just going through the motions, and if you thought that zombies are creatures that are always just going through the motions, then you haven’t seen Survival of the Dead. Even the zombies are boring and lame, here.

The greatest failure of the film, though, is that it sort of forgets that it’s a zombie movie, and Romero tries to focus exclusively on the human drama. But he’s not really a great director of “human drama,” and so much of the film just comes across as cheesy. Like a bad USA show. We watch Survival of the Dead because we want zombies, and if Land of the Dead wasn’t quite successful because it was too ambitious for a zombie movie, then Survival of the Dead is an absolute failure because it has zero ambition.

After Diary of the Dead (which I really enjoyed), I was looking forward to this movie. Too bad, George Romero. Too bad.

The Fourth Kind offers a fresh new approach for a movie, a film where the actors are identified as actors and purposefully break the “fourth wall” in order to speak directly to the audience and give credibility to the supposed documentary/interview footage that is interspersed throughout. The director himself appears in the film, tells us that he is directing the film, tells us that he is skeptical, tells us that we should judge for ourselves based on the grainy documentary footage, the staticky recordings…

But here’s the problem: in order to find this a successful film, you’ve got to really really believe that it’s all true. Because the film offers no resolution.

This (the lack of resolution, or a hokey resolution) is something that has plagued the faux-real-footage film for a decade, from Blair Witch to Cloverfield to Paranormal Activity. These movies rely on the “real” footage to tell the entire story, and so they usually just wind up killing the main character so that they can end on a creepy camera angle without having to answer any questions (because how can they ever answer all the questions if the footage was just “found” somewhere?). It’s a lazy and disappointing finish.

The Fourth Kind, by offering no real resolution, winds up feeling like a big-budget version of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. If it’s all real, then you’re engrossed. But think of what might happen if you watched “America’s Most Wanted” only to realize that the murders were all fictitious. What’s the point?It only works when you believe.

So if this is all fictional material, why not just write a resolution? You’re no longer relying on the “we just found all this footage” conceit, since the actors have told us that they’re dramatizing scenes outside of the documentary footage.

In the end, this is a story that out-clevers itself. Yes, the ending is disappointing (as are the endings of Cloverfield and Blair Witch, etc.), but it’s more disappointing because the filmmakers have given themselves a clever way to actually provide a resolution, but instead leave us hanging as if this is still an unsolved mystery…

Taking Chance

“Taking Chance” is one of only a handful of films that has attempted to document the American experience in the Iraq War, and has actually succeeded. So many of the Hollywood attempts to deal with the war have been either preachy or disjointed (or both), mainly because they were more concerned with politics than with the real human characters at the center of the stories. Think of “Rendition,” which–for all the crying and shouting–seemed less about honest character development and more about Big Statements.

“Generation Kill” was quite the opposite: it was like “The Wire” in Iraq, the story of soldiers struggling against institutional failure. And “The Hurt Locker” showed us a trio of characters whose motivations for combat led to real human tragedy (off the battlefield, at least).

“Taking Chance” is a quiet film, a very patient film, and it never once actually goes to Iraq. But it is extremely powerful and resonant because it is so ridiculously honest. And there are moments when you think it’s going to make a political statement, but you realize…no, it’s just showing how this particular character attempts to negotiate a world teeming with politics, without ever allowing the politics to affect him.

There’s not a lot to the movie or to the story. Quite simply, Kevin Bacon stars as a military officer who volunteers to be an escort for a fallen soldier’s remains; the film is the journey home, and ends with the funeral for the family. Very simple, but it’s an emotional experience…not as epic as “The Deer Hunter,” of course, but affecting in the same sort of way.

The Problem With Epic Disaster Movies…

I didn’t hate “2012” (and, in fact, it’s a movie that–like “Independence Day”–is so goofy that it’s tough to really hate), but I do think that it represents the absolute epitome of all that is wrong with big-budget Hollywood action/adventure epics in the post-Millennial, in-love-with-CGI world.

Okay, so here’s the premise: the world is ending (tectonic plates shifting, oceans moving, general mayhem and destruction, etc.), and a few characters are trying to race across the globe to make it aboard a high-tech ark that will save a select few humans from the end of the world. Preposterous, yes, but this movie never sets out to be anything more than escapism. That hint of environmentalist commentary we saw in “The Day After Tomorrow?” It’s pretty much been erased from this script.

Here’s why I think this movie is the epitome of all that’s wrong with big-budget action movies these days, though: there are sequences in “2012” so ridiculous, so unbelievable, so dangerous and death-defying, that–when the characters survive–you aren’t necessarily on the edge of your seat…instead, you just expect it. Remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom,” when the characters outran boulders and rode on jerky underground rail cars, and you held your breath and hoped they made it out alive, even though (hello?) they were the stars of the film, and we knew they weren’t going to die? Well, in “2012,” the characters aren’t hanging on for dear life during a rickety bridge collapse; no, they’re flying planes through the shifting plates and mountains of a world gone to hell, dodging balls of lava and buses falling from the sky; they’re making maneuvers that the best video gamer couldn’t even complete, and they’re doing it for two full hours, without enduring a scratch.

At some point (early in the film), you stop holding your breath. You just say, “Well, the filmmakers are throwing a bunch of crazy shit at the characters, and they’re not going to die.” The bigger the spectacle, the less danger (and the less drama) we actually have. It’s like comparing the action scenes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (outrunning a boulder) to “Crystal Skull” (saved from an atomic bomb by jumping into a refrigerator?), or the simple spaceship fights of “Star Wars” (Millennium Falcon vs. two or three Empire ships) to “The Phantom Menace” (a billion fighter ships on the screen at once). We throw up our hands. We appreciate the visual, but we don’t worry about the characters in the center of it all.

So no, “2012” wasn’t a “hate-able” movie. But it also isn’t a very gripping movie. There’s more danger in a single scene of action films from 10-15 years ago, even bad ones like “Volcano” or “Dante’s Peak,” because we can honestly picture the characters fighting their way through these situations. In “2012” (and “Crystal Skull,” and a thousand other spectacle-based action movies), we’re just watching a few human tour guides showing us the best digital animation that money can buy.

September Dawn

So I recently watched the mini-series “Into the West,” a fairly epic look at a full century of violence and conflict and tragedy as a result of American expansionism. While the filmmakers re-created the San Francisco Gold Rush, the murder and destruction of Kansas settlers by Missouri slave-owners, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, I thought they missed a great opportunity by failing to show how the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints impacted (and was impacted by) westward expansion. There’s so much potential there…

And then I came across “September Dawn,” and I thought it might make a nice complement to “Into the West.” Here we’d have a film that would show us the violence born of conflict between Mormon settlers and Christian pioneers.

But “September Dawn” never really lived up to my expectations, particularly because it felt more like it wanted to be a shocking documentary than a character-based drama. It seemed more interested in showing Brigham Young’s testimony and connection the cold-blooded massacre of Christian settlers, even though Young was never an important part of the story itself, than it did in fleshing out the protagonists. At times, it even seemed uncomfortably close to an anti-Mormon propaganda piece, a film whose sole purpose is not to explore how these events affected/impacted the characters at the story’s core, but a film that instead simply wants to shout, “Hey! Look at how bad the Mormons are!”

If you want to know the flaws of the Mormon Church, read “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Or, perhaps, someone might someday make a good documentary about the Mountain Meadows Massacre someday. Every church has its problems, its hypocrisies, its dirty past, but there’s got to be more to a piece of historical fiction than simply “exposing the dirty past.”

So the major flaw here is this: if a filmmaker’s sole purpose in creating a piece of fiction is to actually create social commentary, why not just write a book as Krakauer did, or film a documentary? Why fiction? Well, I don’t know for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the filmmakers were just lazy; they didn’t want to be bothered by a rigid adherence to facts, so they just created a loose fictionalized account of the event. And so, overall, they wind up with a lazy and weak film.

GasLand as Horror Documentary

“GasLand” is the scariest documentary I’ve seen since “The Corporation” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and maybe the scariest film I’ve seen since “Paranormal Activity.” No, wait. Scratch that. It might just be the scariest film I’ve ever seen.

Here’s why: first of all, Josh Fox–the director–comes across as a genuine and likable narrator, an everyman who never once feels like a filmmaker. This isn’t Michael Moore, who we’ve come to distrust, and this isn’t some suave and good-looking TV host who was hired for his plastic good looks. Fox just seems like an everyman, a dude who bought a camera and decided to film his journey toward understanding something crazy happening all around him. He’s a dude who goes on a road trip to learn the answers to a great number of questions he’s been wondering. In this way, the movie carries all of the “this could happen to me” fright-power of “Paranormal Activity” and “Diary of the Dead” and even “Cloverfield.” It is amateurish, in a good way, and it is immersive. Josh Fox is us, and we are Josh Fox, and we are never allowed to leave the nightmare world he has entered.

Second, “GasLand” has the Stephen King-esque ability to take the ordinary ideas and objects that motivate us or that surround our daily lives, and transform them into something hideous and dangerous. King made cell phones into instruments of death in “Cell,” and the common flu into a worldwide plague in “The Stand.” Whatever is ordinary becomes terrifying in his hands. In “GasLand,” Fox pairs our unyielding pursuit of new energy sources (in this case, natural gas) with our most taken-for-granted natural resource (water), and creates the overwhelming feeling that we could be headed for a truly cataclysmic future. When he sets fire to ordinary tap water, just by holding a lighter to a running faucet, the images are at first shocking…but then they marinate in your mind for awhile, and what at first was just a shocking visual soon becomes an epic nightmare: what if all well water is ruined, polluted by natural gas? What would we do if all of the systems that we relied upon for a functioning society (our faucets, and running water, first and foremost) were to break down?

And finally, “GasLand” does what so many other frightening documentaries have done: it not only showcases the problem with the natural gas “fracturing” technology, but shows clear evidence that the major corporations know of its detrimental effects, have attempted to silence or discredit those who try to speak out, and have essentially paid off any politicians who might stand in the way of their continued pursuit of natural gas and further profit. In the end, we have seen so many stories of “salt of the earth” people in Wyoming and Arkansas and Pennsylvania who have been intimidated and ignored and hushed, that we feel like there’s nothing we can do. We are powerless; we are doomed to the future nightmare that we have imagined.

Hey, listen: I’m not entirely naive. I know that this film is an argument, and that Josh Fox has made it as frightening as possible so that he be as persuasive as possible. He has perhaps made the danger more imminent than it is, the stakes higher than they really are. Perhaps. As “everyman” as he appears, he’s also a very skilled filmmaker.

But I’ll tell you what: there were moments in this movie where he didn’t even have to try very hard to make the images frightening, where a single five-second scene could do far more than any camera trick, any sappy music, any rhetorical flourish or savvy speech. “GasLand” is a scary movie for all of the strategies I listed above, but mostly, it’s a scary movie because Fox doesn’t even *need* to be a skilled filmmaker in order to terrify us; he only needs to let the images speak for themselves, and in the end, that’s what keeps us awake at night. Brilliant and haunting. “GasLand” is a must-see, and the issue that Fox explores is certainly one that we should all be worried about.

Away We Go: Potential Millennial Movie?

Perhaps because Dave Eggers penned the script (and his “Heartbreaking Work” was/is the quintessential novel of Generation X), and perhaps because Sam Mendes was the director (and his “American Beauty” is one of the quintessential films of late ’90s/early 2000’s suburban malaise), I expected great things from “Away We Go.” And while it was light and funny and had a great premise, it never really amounted to much. In fact, it just sort of felt like an extended collection of Saturday Night Live sketches, stitched together into a film.

Yes, the dialogue is often smart, and yes, the direction is skilled. John Krasinski is a likable lead, strange and quirky in very different ways than his character from “The Office” (giving us a unique experience in this film), and Maya Rudolph shows surprising range, going from slapstick to bitchy to heartbreak to strong, sometimes all in a single scene. For the two leads alone, the movie is definitely worth watching, but I suppose I just expected more.

“Away We Go” could have made an amazing statement about the current generation and about child-rearing/raising practices; the idea that a pregnant couple would take the opportunity to decide where they wanted to live when they raised their child, would forsake any firm attachments to either of their families, would travel the country in an effort to truly formulate their own unique plans for how/where they wanted to be parents (and to hell with what society told them about how they were supposed to start their family)…that’s an incredible idea, an incredible concept, an incredible opportunity that Eggers and Mendes had, and the cast is up to the challenge. But in the end, it’s just a light comedy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that this movie could have been so much more.

Miami: City of Dreams

Though I loved “Cocaine Cowboys” for its numerous profiles of some really strange and distinct characters involved in the late ’70s and early ’80s drug trade (from drug runners to hitmen to newscasters), I think the film is most remarkable for its full and rich portrait of the city of Miami.

“Cocaine Cowboys” seems to function almost as a tragedy, with Miami as the central character. We start with a peaceful and quiet South Florida town; nice beaches, clumps of retirees; very little crime. And we see the city become intoxicated with drug money, unsavory villains from South America and Cuba descending upon Miami and transforming the culture. Violence, skyrocketing murder rates, shoot-outs in clubs and restaurants and malls. But also (it seems) money and cocaine and fast cars for everyone, and new skyscrapers rising daily.

Really, this movie shows us the birth of Miami as an international city, and the drugs and dead bodies that serve as the city’s foundation. It’s a remarkable story, shocking and scary and sad, almost doesn’t seem possible, but–much like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” for Chicago and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” for NY City–it reminds us that most major metropolitan areas are indeed born of conflict, violence, even if we forget about it a few decades later when the gangsters are gone and the skyline sparkles with new condominiums.

Paired with “The U” (the ESPN documentary about the Miami Hurricanes), “Cocaine Cowboys” is a stranger-than-fiction look at an era (and a city) that doesn’t seem possible. Every minute of both of these movies will have you watching, wide-eyed, shaking your head. This happened?

The Cove: Shouldn’t Be True

Like “GasLand,” a documentary I watched a couple months ago, “The Cove” is filed under that “I really wish this wasn’t true” category. It’s a disturbing, disturbing film, the type where each new scene seems to reveal some other horrible act that just doesn’t feel like it should be happening.

If you’ve ever watched the show “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet, you’re aware of the basic idea here: Japanese fishermen are a pretty classless and unethical bunch, and work with local and national government agencies to exploit loopholes that allow them to hunt (and wholesale slaughter) whales and dolphins. And what’s scariest about the slaughter is that most of the country doesn’t seem to know that it’s happening.

“The Cove” shows two Japans: one–the big city–where citizens are shocked to learn that there is a Japanese town built upon dolphin slaughter, and that dolphin meat is consumed (and in some cases, marketed as another type of fish altogether); and the other–the small town of Taiji–where the citizens literally conspire to keep their dolphin industry a secret. Almost no one knows what is happening. Outsiders are chased out of town, jailed. The footage obtained for this film comes at a remarkable cost (the filmmakers had to enlist Industrial Light and Magic to create special hidden cameras that would blend into the landscape).

When I watched “GasLand,” I said that I hadn’t seen something so disturbing in years. When I watched “The Cove,” unfortunately, I can only say that I haven’t seen something so disturbing in months…but still, this is a movie that does what so few documentaries are able to do: it reveals an aspect of our international culture that should not be true, that is kept hidden from the general public, and it works as an amazing and thorough argument to stop something that (an hour before) we didn’t even know could be possible.

Harlan County USA

Another one of those documentaries that doesn’t seem like it could be possible. “Harlan County USA” is tough to watch, a series of snapshots of an America that no longer exists, and that–when you look at the dates of the events, early 1970s–you cannot believe was so recent.

Quite simply, this movie showcases (without any narration, and without very many title screens) a coal miners’ strike in West Virginia, giving us a look at the terrible working conditions, the terrible living conditions, the harassment and violence (including one young man who is shot dead) at the hands of the “company men,” and ultimately, the utter disregard by the mainstream media.

It’s the sort of story that you watch and you say, “Well, things would be different now. CNN would be there in a heartbeat.” And man, I hope so. Because the mines in West Virginia apparently claimed more than 200 lives a year, and the miners here are protesting for safer working conditions and their lives are destroyed for attempting to do so. Men on the picket line literally run over by “scabs.” Men shot at by machine guns. Men killed for striking. Unbelievable stuff.

Like I said, tough to watch. Spend fifteen minutes with this movie, and you want to start crying. That sad, sad mountain folk music doesn’t help, either.