Normally it would be a good week, in fact a high-performing week, if movies featuring zombies, NBA stars and Paul Giamatti were all released on DVD. You would think that. But this week you’d be wrong. Gazing over this week’s new offerings, Videoport Jones is already feeling a tad more surly than usual.
Videoport Jones: “I’m gonna get the review of this zombie comedy (or ‘zombedy,’ as the genre shall now be known) over in a hurry. Here goes: Not bad at all, with solid work from the poor man’s Michael Cera (or the rich man’s Michael Cera) Jesse Eisenberg, ‘Superbad’s’ Emma Stone, even ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ herself Abigail Breslin, and a movie-stealing turn from Woody Harrelson as the redneckiest of the bunch. There’s a nice mix of humor, drama, and action (and extreme gore), and one great cameo, even if the humor is a little too flip and self-aware (let’s call that brand of movie dialogue ‘Diablo’-ed from now on to save time). As far as the zombedy genre goes, it’s right up there, although the inevitable comparisons to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ do ‘Zombieland’ no favors: ‘Shaun’ is simply better in every department at what it does – its soulful moments are more genuine and wrenching, its comedy funnier and less pleased with itself, and its violence more impactful and less CGI-lookin’. (Oh, and ‘Shaun’ isn’t cheapened every ten minutes with the most blatant product placement since the plot of ‘Regarding Henry’ turned on Harrison Ford remembering, and displaying, a certain brand of cracker.) There – ‘Zombieland’ = pretty good. Now, let’s talk about the film’s central flaw, shall we? FAST ZOMBIES ARE AN ABOMINATION. Not in the sense that they’re walking (or running, in this case) around, in defiance of god and nature, but that they, the recently reanimated, mindless corpses of horribly-mutilated zombie victims, are sprinting like Usain Bolt and leaping around after people like ninjas. The recent trend towards Carl Lewis-ing up the zombie threat is symptomatic of the Red Bull-addicted, short attention-span-addled PS3 generation of horror fans (and the ‘who gives a crap’ movie execs who cater to them), and it is WRONG WRONG WRONG! See if you can follow me: The true horror of the zombie phenomenon in horror (as it will be when it actually occurs, probably in 2012, if the Mayans know their lionclothed backsides from a plucked cockatoo) is not that a zombie is gonna chase you down like a puma or leap down on you like Spider-Man, but that it is inexorable. Sure, one zombie is slow, uncoordinated, stupid and easy to dispatch (assuming you’ve got a suitable weapon, lots of open space to maneuver, and don’t get even a drop of its blood into any open cuts). But there isn’t just
one zombie. There are thousands. They are everywhere. And, as they sweep over your town in a shambling, single-minded mass of murder, their numbers are growing. Soon there won’t be one, or thousands, but millions, and then billions. And sure, maybe you can seal yourself off in a boarded up house (or shopping mall), but once they know you’re in there, they will never leave, and the noise they make as they try to get you will attract more, and more. And even if they can’t get in, you will eventually have to get out, once you need food, or water. And then you’re on the run, always looking for somewhere to rest, to hide, and they keep coming, and they are everywhere, and they will…never…stop… Now that’s scary. This fast zombie stuff is for the unimaginative. Now GET OFF MY LAWN!!!”
Justin: “Strap yourselves in kids. Jonesy’s on fire right out of the chute. Someone may lose an eye. Or at the least a hand. I too, will cut to the chase with ‘Zombieland,’ I loved this movie. It is supremely enjoyable and easily the best turn from Woody I’ve seen in a very long time. Stone, and Bresslin I think deserve special mention here for not just carrying their weight but really balancing out the cast well, and not just in a ‘we need chicks to eventually endanger’ kind of way in most movies. As we all know, Justin is not a big fan of the horror game. (Yes, I just went third person there.) But any time you can mix up the scares with some genuine laughs and other surprises – and skewer a genre – then you’ve got me. It’s the equivalent of when your parents snuck veggies into dinner. Go rent this, I plan to buy it, because ‘Zombieland’ just shot into the zombedy pantheon (On another note, when can we stop with the bad abbreviations and genre-slang? Either they’re funny horror flicks or a horror comedy.) While the comparisons to ‘Shaun’ may not be fair, they are apt, I think, because even as comedies I think they give an almost realistic ‘holy crap if the apocalypse came that’s what I’d do’ feel. Now, as to your central argument, I’m 100 percent onboard. It’s not just lazy, but doesn’t make a lot of sense. If these junkie zombies are always zipping around like some sort of combination of The Flash and a ninja, at what point do their batteries run out? I know some will say ‘that’s why they need adrenaline/plasma/brain McNuggets from the living.” But it seems like their bodies would just explode or collapse. But more on your point, zombies, in the vision of some, are metaphors for a plodding, unthinking populace that cares for little other than the basics. They are legion, they endure. So how do super zombies fit into that? Like many bad ideas that sprung to life from Hollywood, this act of genius was a quick and dirty fix. ‘How do we make zombies scarier? Can we give them laser beam eyes? Telekinesis? We’ll call it Z-Men! Wait, let’s just make them fast!’ Think of this: Jonesy and I are on the top floor of Press Herald Plaza and zombies are approaching. What scenario is scarier: The slow, inevitable terror as they advance wave after wave at a dread-building pace, OR, they swoop onto the scene, clog the stair cases and overtake the building in minutes? You know what I think old chum? I think we HAVE to make a zombie movie now. We have no choice. I think we make an old-school zombie flick featuring the plucky, pop-culture geeked employees of an upstart video store facing off against a horde of the undead in a quiet seaside town. We could call it ‘Zombieport…'”
VPJ: “What do you call a movie that is both endearingly odd and imaginative and painfully derivative at the same time? Well, I’ll give you a guess… ‘Cold Souls’ is a neat little movie that, had another, better, shockingly-similar movie not come out before it, would be hailed a lot more for its original premise. Unfortunately, that other, earlier, better movie was called ‘Being John Malkovich, and ‘Cold Souls’ suffers in comparison. Like ‘BJM’, ‘Cold Souls’ stars a noted, respected actor as ‘himself’ who finds ‘himself’ at the center of an inexplicable supernatural phenomenon which threatens his very identity and ends up going to great and oddball lengths to recover his autonomy. It’s too bad, because if the movie had had Paul Giamatti playing a character not named ‘Paul Giamatti’, the movie would probably have an easier time being judged on its own merits, which are significant. Giamatti plays ‘Giamatti’, a shlumphy-but-respected film and stage actor who finds himself in a slough of despond and, hearing of an experimental new technique which can temporarily remove his soul, goes in for a session with it’s avuncular, seemingly-sane inventor (the ever-wonderful David Strathairn, radiating calm). When the pesky soul’s out, however, ‘Giamatti’ finds that his acting chops have dropped to dangerous, Keanu-esque levels (Giamatti’s success at portraying a suddenly bad actor are funny and fascinating), and he goes to get his mojo back, only to find out it’s been stolen. It’s a cool idea, full of possibilities for satire, introspection, and all the rest of it, but, unlike spiritual forebears like ‘BJM’, ‘Synechdoche, NY’, and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ this one doesn’t have Charlie Kaufman’s mind at the controls, and the whole enterprise never quite takes off. It’s not bad, but a disappointment, which is too bad, because the world would be a better place if studios were racing out dueling quirky indie projects as much as they were ‘big asteroid go boom’ movies.”
JE: “But doesn’t that assume studios place as much faith and resources behind ‘quirky indies’ as they do in summer tent pole extravaganzas? They only bankroll sure bets, which is why you wind up with reboots, updates, sequels and clones. As a general rule can we say it’s a risky proposition for actors to play ‘themselves.’ Sometimes it works, others you feel like asking why the writers couldn’t flesh out a real character. Still, there is an exclusive club of people who have pulled off the ‘Myself as I,’ including Malkovich, Bruce Campbell in ‘My Name is Bruce,’ and of course Billy Zane in ‘Zoolander.’ In the case of this film, I think this could be considered the central problem. The movie is nice enough, just a little quirky and emotional, but not heavy lifting, and Paul Giamatti is who we thought he was. Which is to say moody but enjoyable. And while your enthusiasm for Kaufman’s touch may be well placed, I’d like to see more directors try and get in the ‘surreality’ game that he and Michel Gondry have cornered. But at the end of the day I think this movie gets a few more points if the lead is named Rory St. Christopher…or something.”
The House of the Devil
VPJ: “Those nostalgic for the days when you’d go to your local video store’s horror section and see row after row of slasher flicks and spooky house movies you’d never heard of before all laid out before you in big, unwieldy VHS cases from companies like Embassy Home Video or Thorn/EMI
(with the white plastic cases), should be right pleased at this, a deliberately 80s-style devil worshippers vs. innocent babysitter movie that, along with its obvious attention to period detail, actually manages to deliver some decent scares. From the on-purpose washed out, grainy look, to the fashions, music (The Fixx makes an appearance), and inclusion of genre stalwarts Mary Woronov (‘Eating Raoul,’ a million others) and Tom Noonan, ‘The House of the Devil’ is a straight-facedly fun and affectionate throwback to your fondest childhood horror movie memories, the kind of flick you’d (ok, I’d) sneak on Cinemax when the parents weren’t paying attention. A little poky, although things really pick up towards the end, and all-around pretty good stuff.”
JE: “‘She was a normal girl, looking forward to a future of kittens and unicorns before she took a job at the last house on Deathmaim Lane…’ And let me guess, maybe she has a penchant for wearing Leo Sayer T-Shirts and really loves ‘Too Close for Comfort?’ I joke. Mostly. I think we may have struck at one of the main differences between us. As young lads we both snuck away to watch these flicks, many with names like like ‘Death Monkey,’ ‘Momma Was a Rusty Clever,’ ‘Blood Gate’ and ‘Sorority of Terror!’ But instead of gaining hours of glee and formative video knowledge like you, I was mostly terrorized. The appeal of something forbidden was great, but unfortunately it made for a cold sweat trying to sleep the night after. And that kids, is why I don’t trust the Danish. ANYWAY, if you are of the mind that horror films should have Meghan Fox, zombies tweaking on amphetamines or sexy vampires, then you probably have no need for a horror flick like this. And you were probably born in the 90s. And your name is Chad. If none of these things apply to you and you can relate to Jonesy or my experience, then rent this.”
VPJ: “Jennifer Aniston. Aaron Eckhart, in twinkly hunk mode. A story about a grieving widower who’s on a book tour for his memoir about dealing with the death of the love of your life when he meets a beautiful lady who reawakens his ability to love again. A title like ‘Love Happens’. No, I have not watched this, and I’m willing to bet real money that you haven’t watched this either, Justin. No offense to Aniston, Eckhart, and love, all of which I like very much indeed, but it’s equally unlikely that we will see this movie until, well, ever, I guess.”
JE: “You know what I like? Cake. You know what I also like? Beer? You know what I am also fond of? Kindness. I like all of these things. But I would not strap in to see a movie about a baker who falls in love with a bartender…wait, actually I might. Bad example. Let me start over. Ham, new cars and laughing. But you know what, that doesn’t mean I would…ah screw it. I’m not seeing this movie. You’re not seeing this movie. We have no need – short of spite or drunkenness – to see this romantic comedy. It just ain’t happening. Let’s move on. But I really do like cake, don’t forget that.”
More Than a Game
VPJ: “This documentary follows a young hoopster named LeBron something when he, and some Ohio high school teammates were dealing with the pressures of playing the basketball. Haven’t seen this yet, but, well, I liked ‘Hoop Dreams’ a lot. I sure hope that LeBron kid turns out okay…”
JE: “You know you’ve turned out OK if you pronounce yourself ‘The Global Icon’ and no one laughs. Yes, I think this kid will be alright. The kid of course, is LeBron ‘The Chosen One’ James, now of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who even as early as middle school was attracting attention for his on-court skills. But this movie is about more than him as it follows the LBJ and his friends/teammates at the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s prep school in Akron, Ohio. These were guys that by their senior year were shattering records and drawing insane crowds for high school basketball, even to the point of eclipsing some college and pro sports. ‘More Than a Game’ is an interesting look at their friendship, the role basktball played in shaping them and the level of status high school basketball has reached in some communities. And that last part is why I have mixed feelings about the movie. I love a good ‘kids come from nothing to big time’ sports documentary, but I feel like LeBron (as spectacular as he is) and the hype machine around him have elevated high school basketball to a status that really makes the sport kind of, I’ll say shady. I could go into a rant about AAU basketball and sneaker support, but I’ll just say this – is it a good thing to have high school basketball nationally televised on ESPN?”
VPJ: “Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart. There you go. Yeah, I really have so little use for Hilary Swank when she’s playing a regular woman; she’s an odd duck – capable of some interesting work (although two best actress Oscars? Seriously?) when she’s playing someone coping with some extreme situation, and utterly inconsequential when she’s just standing around being a person. Then she’s just exposed as the smiling, pleasant also-ran that she seems more suited to play. Oh, in this one, she smooches Richard Gere for a while and then gets lost. Hope I didn’t spoil anything there…”
JE: “I think what they were going for with ‘Amelia’ was a classic Swank role of a singular woman dealing with improbably circumstances. Just like in ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Freedom Writers’…wait, scratch that last one…ANYWAY, I think the producers thought the role of Amelia Earhart was on par with those other characters Swank has embodied. The studio said ‘Hey! she’s played lady boxers, lady-boys, and a lady Karate Kid, she can do Earhart!” But the problem is this is a biopic – to a certain degree – and a plodding one at that. When you have to go through all the hoops of a typical biopic, how much wiggle room do you have? And how tortured can you really make Amelia Earhart? I think it’s impossible for Earhart to not be a fascinating historical figure, but I don’t think this movie, or the Swankster, did her any favors.”
LIGHTNING ROUND! And the also-rans this week at Videoport: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (Jean Claude and Dolph are back! Running home to the sci-fi action series they abandoned decades ago when they thought their careers were going to take them on to bigger and better things), New York, I Love You (Remember that film “Paris, I Love You,” where all the famous directors made short films about Paris? Well this one is just the same…except in New York!), Bonekickers’ – Season 1 (A new BBC mystery series about some unexpectedly spy archaeologists getting their Indy on stars the cool Adrien Lester from “Hustle” and “Primary Colors”), The Secret of the Grain (French film about an old man who wants to open a restaurant).
– Are “fast zombies” an abomination? Would Jonesy and I survive the assault on Press Herald Plaza?
– What’s your favorite movie where an actor plays him or herself?
– Is it a bad thing to have high school basketball games on ESPN?