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One year later (and one father shorter)

It’s been well over a year since my last post. Yet despite this passage time, now, after all these months, I feel as though I need to offer some explanation. I can’t say why, exactly, since I don’t “owe” the Internet anything and I expect that any followers of this blog have flown the coop ages ago. Maybe it’s an explanation of facts that I need to type out for myself, so that they seem real. Because for the past year, I’ve had the feeling of living a nightmare out of space and time.

My father died on Oct. 12 after a 20-month battle with small-cell lung cancer. He lived 14 months longer than any of his doctors thought he would, though of course at the time of diagnosis no one would put such a firm expiration date on his life. Perhaps it was a way to encourage him to fight that much harder; perhaps it was honesty on the part of his oncologist, who had no cancer crystal ball and could not, really, predict how long it would take the cancer to destroy his lung capacity. At any rate, Dad stayed on chemo and occasionally radiation for much of those 20 months. In fact, he was overdue for his next round of chemo when he was hospitalized two weeks ago. It happened this way: He was doing well, he was doing pretty well, he couldn’t breathe, he got a little better, he died. Just that quick, after one excruciatingly bad night in the hospital, he was gone. And even though my family had 20 months to digest the idea, his death happened so fast that it flattened our lives like a tornado; we were grabbing up photos and papers while the sirens went off, even though we knew it was too late. One minute I was kissing my father goodbye in his hospital bed, and the next I was in a funeral home, surrounded by rows and rows of urns, reeling at the thought of having to choose one as his final resting place.

So much of the past year has been devoted to coming to terms with this pending loss. The process more or less paralyzed my writing ability, and I found myself, every time I sat down to compose a review, at a loss for words. So many words gone unwritten, just like so many words gone unspoken, words I should have said to my father but did not. Now the “pending” part is gone, and I suppose what’s left is grief. Plain, ugly, painful grief, the kind there’s no way of getting around. The work of accepting a life where someone who was a constant fixture is missing. Accepting this surreal, strange new world where it feels as though the rug has been ripped from underneath me only to reveal that that floor is missing as well. Accepting a new normal far less appealing than the old one. I’ll be candid: I have no idea how to do any of this. But I think writing will have to be a part of it. Because I shared a love of movies with my father, and because he was always proud of my reviews, no matter how many or how few people read them. Dad may have been a man of few words, but I knew that much. And I’d like to think that coming back to these reviews, however slowly, is a way of honoring him, of honoring his memory.

Stress

Once again I’ve done my best Willy Wonka impression: as quickly as I came, I vanished.

I could make some noise about the stress of changing jobs (true) and dealing with family issues (also true), but I’ll spare you from hearing that tune again. Let’s just say that right now, in the battle of blogging vs. life, life is taking names and kicking ass. And one of those asses, I’m sad to say, belongs to this blog.

So bear with me, folks, while I get through these next few weeks of big changes and stomach-tightening anxiety, and I’ll get back to scribbling about movie films directly…

Film roundtable, take 2

Rich “I don’t review films, I relive them” at Widescreen World asked me to pitch in my 2 cents for his latest film roundtable discussion. Univarn from A Life in Equinox, Andrew from Encore’s World of Film and TV and I weigned in on the future of chick flicks (let’s hope they go the way of “Bridesmaids”), the change in the number of Best Picture nominees and more. Read our rap session online or click on the graphic. Enjoy…

My thought on today

My thought on today

Carell, Gosling a fine, funny pairing in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Cal (Steve Carell) gets his groove back in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“Bad Santa” fans, prepare to meet a kinder, gentler Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Indeed, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is far removed from the booze-soaked, potty-mouthed desperation of “Bad Santa” (Ficarra and Requa penned the script) or the all-out insanity of “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Maybe one too many ass jokes prompted the duo to venture into calmer waters with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” a romantic comedy with strong performances and several tongue-in-cheek jabs at rom-com gimmicks.

Casting Steve Carell as Cal Weaver, a nice-but-oft-befuddled 40ish father and husband, was the first smart move (if not a stroke of genius, because who could play Joe Husband better than Carell?). He’s got the best face in the business for communicating bemusement and heartbreak, and rare is the actor who can locate humor in a moment of complete emotional devastation. For Cal, that moment is the dinner where his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces she’s cheated on Cal and wants a divorce. It’s one of those inherently human situations where the shock is too great to predict the emotional fallout. Cal’s so dumbfounded he can’t speak, leading him to roll out of a moving car to avoid any more of Emily’s confessions. Within a few days he’s moved into a grim little apartment and parked himself at a chi-chi local bar, yammering drunkenly about his troubles (Carell’s “I’m a cuckold” speech is hysterical) to anyone within earshot. Suave ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, who proves adept at comedy) takes pity on this unfortunately dressed soul and offers him lessons on how to rediscover his masculinity (step one: ditch the sneaks-and-khakis getup).

 
Jacob and Cal’s unlikely friendship is a high point of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because it gives Carell and Gosling, both choice character actors, ample opportunities to play off each other’s quite different comedic styles. Carell is never better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s trying to pick up women (Marisa Tomei has a fun cameo as Cal’s first post-breakup “score”). On the other end of the spectrum is Gosling, who tends to pick dramatic roles and do amazing things with them. His comedy comes from a place of self-confidence and trends toward random observational humor, such as his sheepish admission to new love Hannah (Emma Stone, delightful) that he stole his big “close-the-deal” move straight from “Dirty Dancing” (he uses the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song and everything). That, really, is the appeal of Carell and Gosling as pals: They’re so dissimilar you’d never match them up as a funny guy pair, but together they’re terrific.
 
Not all the pairings in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” work quite so well, though. The subplot involving Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bob) and his infatuation with babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) is sweet but not particularly interesting, especially considering that Jessica has a raging crush on Cal. (The whole bit with her snapping nude photos to prove to him she’s not a kid is just awkward.) Kevin Bacon doesn’t generate much heat with Moore as David Lindhagen, the man who effectively broke up Emily and Cal’s marriage. Moore and Carell do have the sometimes weary chemistry of a long-married couple (their scene outside Robbie’s parent-teacher conference is wrenching). Still, even they can’t quite hold a candle to Stone and Gosling, whose budding relationship essentially runs away with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” These two are dynamite together, and they develop a believable, tentative first-love kind of intimacy that’s a nice juxtaposition to Emily and Cal’s well-worn but deep affection for one another. Even when Dan Fogelman’s script takes a few missteps (like the Big Speech Ending), it’s these two relationships — one winding down, the other gearing up — that make “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” a cut above most romantic comedies. 
 
Grade: B+

My thought on today

Review: “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

The brutality of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has little to do with gore and everything to do with atmosphere. While there are scenes of violence (heavily concentrated in the fim’s last act), they pale in comparison to the bare-bones, almost clinical camerawork and matter-of-fact story and acting. What causes the dead to rise, though hinted at, remains uncertain. The only certainty in Romero’s world of the living vs. the undead is that survival depends on pragmatism and brutality. There is no room for sentimentality or nostalgia; those who waste time on either are goners. Only the drive to survive — by any means necessary — remains.

Romero does not let his camera recoil from this ruthless reality; he takes no mercy on his characters and no mercy on his audience. Tension hovers in the air in “Night of the Living Dead” — the zombie movie that defined the genre — from its opening shot, an unbroken take of a car puttering down a long, winding road toward a rural Pennsylvania cemetery. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) have come to visit their father’s grave, and Johnny can’t resist poking fun at his sister’s fear of cemeteries. (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra” has not aged at all.) Barbra’s fear becomes real when she’s attacked by a ravenous stranger. Johnny dies during the struggle, but Barbra escapes to a farmhouse. There she encounters not only half-eaten bodies but Ben (Duane Jones), who’s run out of fuel and needs shelter. Ben, intent on surviving, barricades them in the house. He refuses to hide in the cellar, and butts heads with another survivor, Harry (Karl Hardman), who wants to stay downstairs with his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Ben finds an ally in Tom (Keith Wayne) and his girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley), who devise a plan to escape to the shelter in nearby Willard. Their plan, however, goes wrong in ways both unpredictable and tragic.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the word “tragedy,” though — “Night of the Living Dead” is the opposite of melodrama. As the film spirals into the hellish sucker punch that is its final act, the histrionics are kept to a minimum (with the possible exception of O’Dea, whose overwrought hysteria, then catatonia, prove grating). With its grainy black-and-white footage, “Night of the Living Dead” has the gut-churning immediacy of a home movie, a nice touch that amplifies the tension and the horror tremendously. Several close-up shots of the ghouls — they’re never called “zombies” here — grabbing desperately at Ben through gaps in a hastily boarded window are marvelously effective. Also ghoulish is the shot filmed in the burned pick-up truck, with the walking dead frantically eating the corpses smoldering inside. The entire escape attempt sequence, with Ben and Tom making a mad dash to a nearby fuel pump and Judy running after them, is a burst of pure desperation-fueled adrenaline that’s held up remarkably well. Possessing none of the bells and whistles of later efforts like “Dawn of the Dead” or “28 Days Later,” it’s still a nail-biter, and it’s still scary as hell.

It’s the unrelenting bleakness of “Night of the Living Dead,” really, that wins in the end. The film’s last act may be action-packed, but the action does not detract from the conclusion, one final act of violence that somehow tops all others. Twists of fate don’t get any darker than this, or more hopeless. But Romero is not interested in selling hope or providing a tidy ending, so he does neither. (This decision is just one of the many reasons why “Night of the Living Dead” shocked critics and moviegoers alike, and why it holds up more than 40 years later.) Read it however you want — as a criticism of 1960s America, or consumerism, or the horrors of the Vietnam War. The film lends itself to many interpretations; it works on many levels. Not surprisingly, though, the film works best as a plain old horror film — one that doesn’t go in for short-term shrieks or lazy gotcha bits. Romero deals in the kind of elemental scares you can’t shake no matter how much you want to.

Grade: A

Review: “Fido” (2006)

“I’d say I’m a pretty darn good father. My father tried to eat me; I don’t remember trying to eat Timmy.” ~~Bill Robinson

How would 1950s America deal with zombies? How would humankind stave off a zombie apocalypse? Could zombie milkmen ever learn not to throw the milk bottles at doorsteps? Those are questions no self-respecting zombie film ever raised. Canadian director Andrew Currie remedies that with “Fido,” a curious, entertaining mix of ’50s nostalgia and satire, zombie gore and unabashedly morbid humor that sputters to an unfortunate finish.

In Currie’s mad, mad world, space radiation has reanimated the dead, resulting in the Zombie Wars, with humans emerging as the victors. Special burials are created to keep the dead from escaping their coffins. Conglomerate Zomcom has fenced in the remaining zombies, using some — domesticated with electric collars — to work in public service. Owning a zombie has become the ultimate status marker in the small suburb of Willard (a nod to “Night of the Living Dead,” no doubt). Worried about image, Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss) can’t resist buying a zombie (Billy Connolly) to act as the household’s undead Mr. Belvedere. Her uptight husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is horrified, but the couple’s lonely son Timmy (Kesun Loder) becomes attached to the walking corpse. He names him Fido, teaches him to play catch and even lets Fido off his leash — which leads to a small zombie outbreak Timmy tries unsuccessfully to cover up. This is where the comedy turns especially wicked; the image of a sweet-faced boy burying the severed head of his zombiefied neighbor in a flower bed, for example, is not for those who prefer light-hearted knock-knock jokes. Not to mention the matter of cheerful oddball Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson, underplaying marvelously), Timmy’s neighbor whose interest in his hot-bodied blonde zombie Tammy (Sonja Barrett) takes necrophilia to a whole new level. 

Black comedy aside, Timmy and Fido’s friendship is the real heart of “Fido,” thanks to Connolly’s funny and sometimes stirring performance. The Scottish comedian has no lines, only various grunts, snarls and groans, but his expressive face and good-natured (if gory) protectiveness of the Robinsons are terrific. Also spot-on is Connolly’s stumbling, stiff movements and posture. Still, despite being a literal zombie, Fido’s more affectionate toward Timmy and Helen than Bill, who’s sour-faced and believes emotions should be squashed. (Baker has a peculiar gift for communicating emotional constipation; see 1998’s “Happiness.”) Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny) shares this philosophy and applies it to his work as Zomcom security chief and his family, mostly ignoring his sharp-shooter daughter (Alexia Fast). Much of Willard’s population, in fact, can be divided into people who appreciate the zombies’ humanity (what’s left of it) and those who treat them as chattel. That Currie even touches on this concept — the idea that zombies can relearn normal human behaviors and emotions, or tap into their former selves — is proof he’s not afraid to monkey with tradition. In “Fido,” zombies are not ravenous, emotionless moving targets. They have become the oppressed.

It’s unfortunate that “Fido” can’t quite sustain its early madcap momentum to the end. Or maybe there’s simply no way Currie could extend such a colorful, out-there premise into a 90-minute feature film. Either way, the final act of “Fido” is rather disappointing, though it does give Baker the chance to play action hero for a few frames. The less interesting characters, like the too-broadly-written Mr. Bottoms and the too-mean bullies that torment Timmy, eat up valuable screen time, while the more intriguing crackpots (Mr. Theopolis takes the cake) are left undeveloped. Baker, being the superb character actor that he is, makes the best of Bill, whose traumatic past is merely hinted at. But until its limping conclusion, “Fido” is full of cheek and energy and a few standout performances. Moss makes Helen more than a prototype of the bored ’50s housewife; she finds some earnest loneliness in there that we see mirrored in Timmy. Connolly, though, is the real treat. Who knew a zombie could carry an entire movie? Blame Canada.

Grade: B-

My thought on today