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Review: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

The cheek! The nerve of Zack Snyder, thinking he could remake George Romero’s fine 1978 commentary on consumerism, the very movie that set the standard for the zombie genre! Feel vindicated yet, die-hard Romero fans and zombie purists? Good. Now that the gorilla in the corner’s been pointed out, let’s move on to the more shocking topic: Snyder’s update is not terrible. Actually, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” is flawed but good — inventive and fast-paced, with enough violence to satisfy gore fiends, some sympathetic characters and nice moments of black humor. Also, there’s a bonafide zombie baby, which is a clear indicator that this remake is zombie flesh of a different pallor.

Snyder, see, is no dummy. He’s aware that Romero’s send-up of shameless consumerism holds less interest for a 21st-century audience, so he’s keen to change things up. He reduces the satire to one line of dialogue and a smattering of brief scenes. With the sly commentary removed, Snyder can focus on the action, the gore and the characters. In addition to upgrading the special effects and the story, the director also upgrades the undead. Snyder’s zombies are dim-witted, but their speed (they can run!) and viciousness renders them more alarming than the lumbering, flesh-craving oafs Romero created. Speed makes the face-chewers in Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” more threatening and predatory; in turn, it makes the humans more vulnerable.

The set-up to this remake has a few things in common with the original: There’s no clear explanation for what’s turning people into zombies; the undead quickly start to outnumber the living; and a group of survivors takes shelter inside a sprawling Milwaukee shopping mall. But “Dawn of the Dead” opens a little differently, introducing the audience to one character, Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse who awakens after her long shift to a world in chaos. After a neighborhood child bites her husband and his reanimated corpse attacks Ana, she has the good sense to grab her car keys, escapes and speeds away. When she crashes her car into a tree, she finds a small group of non-dead humans: Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop; Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina); and Michael (Jake Weber), an average guy turned resourceful survivor. They head to the local mall for shelter, where other survivors — including ringleader C.J. (Michael Kelly), a mall cop — are less than thrilled to share their hideout. Stuck in a building swarmed by zombies, Ana and the others slowly adjust to this new normal … until a truck with more survivors shows up, and the contagion threatens to spread inside the group’s stronghold. 

The addition of more survivors, unfortunately, muddies the water. It’s not the smartest move, since more characters mean that some leave little impression, while others are puzzling (like the wannabe stripper) or downright annoying (the dog-obsessed teen orphan, for example). Still, Snyder manages to keep the people we form emotional connections with — Ana, Kenneth, Andre and Michael — central to the story. James Gunn’s adapted screenplay provides a few affecting scenes, such as Ana and Michael’s slow-growing affection for one another and Andre’s fierce determination to protect Luda and his unborn child. Rhames’ friendship with another survivor, Andy (Bruce Bohne), a marksman trapped on the roof of an ammo shop yards away, is a nice touch. The two use binoculars and signs to communicate, devising macabre zombie shooting games and even playing chess. Snyder keeps these moments of human connection brief enough that they don’t hamper the violence, but not so brief that the survivors feel like anonymous zombie chow.

“Dawn of the Dead” gets extra points for first-rate song selection and editing, notably in montages and the credits. The early news footage montage set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” ingeniously enhances the song’s ominous tone, while a blink-and-miss-it scene in an elevator gets a pinch of humor from the “All Out of Love” muzak background. Another montage, soundtracked to Disturbed’s bleakly cheery “Down with the Sickness,” is distinctly unsettling. And the closing credits add a pitch-black finale to the survivors’ tale, shown in flashes of hand-held video camera footage — an intimate and chilling end for this successful update.    

Grade: B+

Review: “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)

Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a gifted pianist, but that’s not his greatest talent. Robert’s true gift is running away. A bright future in piano performance, a well-to-do family of intellectuals, a needy and pregnant girlfriend — he can walk away from any situation at a moment’s notice. He reinvents himself constantly. Robert’s not quite as talented, though, at acting out whatever new part he’s written. The bitterness, the rage and the discontentment that seep out tend to give him away.

Other people are part of this man’s world, of course, but Bob Rafelson’s comprehensive character study “Five Easy Pieces” revolves around the volatile curiosity that is Robert Dupea. Much like the actor who plays him, Robert cannot be pinned down. He is aimless and distant and restless, a man perpetually ill at ease in his own skin. He’s also disgruntled, though the source of his discontentment is murky. What little information the script provides doesn’t make it any easier to diagnosis Robert’s problem, either. He works in a California oil field, spending his off hours with girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who idolizes Tammy Wynette and Robert in equal measure. Rayette’s hero worship suffocates him, and he treats her with contempt and cheats on her. He also kills time drinking with buddy Elton (Billy Bush). None of this makes him especially happy. Neither do Rayette’s unexpected pregnancy and Elton’s arrest for a convenience store robbery. So when Robert finds out accidentally that his father (William Challee) is ill, he sees his chance to escape … except that a moment of exasperation means Rayette is along for the ride.

An eventual clash of these two worlds — Robert’s listless life with Rayette and his family’s more urbane, pretentious existence — is inevitable. Where Rafelson takes the road less traveled is the result of this collision. He doesn’t present either life as a particularly charmed choice. Robert’s family, a cluster of aggressively cultured types, delights in insufferable dinner guests who name-drop equally insufferable philosophers and belittle the working classes, taking special aim at Rayette. Rayette, on the other hand, is naïve in a way that’s not the least bit charming: She shows up at the Dupea’s Puget Sound mansion when it’s crystal clear Robert doesn’t want her there; she asks for ketchup during a fancy dinner party; she chalks Robert’s hateful tirades and violent behavior up to “moodiness.” Before these two worlds can collide, though, Rafelson foreshadows the tension with the strained, beautifully shot road trip. In this portion of “Five Easy Pieces,” Nicholson outdoes himself. He simmers quietly but dangerously, weathering Rayette’s non-stop singing, her constant need for attention and approval. Robert swallows his annoyance with two bizarre hitchhikers, but some of it spills over in Nicholson’s now-famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene. His contempt for the rude waitress is positively scalding; his sarcasm, withering and razor-sharp. It’s not hard to see why this scene is often touted as the one that made his name — and his career.

“Five Easy Pieces,” though mostly (and undeniably) a vehicle for Nicholson’s talent, also excels visually. Cinematographer László Kovács takes great pains to film the parts of California travel guide photographers shy away from: the barren, featureless landscapes and oil fields; Rayette’s disheveled, nothing-special trailer home; the winding, dusty roads crammed with traffic so thick the exhaust fumes are nearly visible. It’s hardly surprising that Robert, suffocated by the cars, abandons his car in the mess, climbs aboard a truck hauling a piano and starts playing. Music offers a temporary escape, and his childhood home appears, at first, to be a respite as well: lush, verdant, overlooking the magestic Puget Sound. But for Robert, the Dupea home is merely another cage with nicer window dressing. He’s no happier in California than he is in Washington, with Rayette or with Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother’s fiancée. Ultimately it’s Catherine who points out this terminal unhappiness to Robert, but he’d rather flee the scene than accept the truth. Thus, “Five Easy Pieces” cannot provide a conclusion with any sort of closure because Robert fears closure. He’s on the run from himself, and that’s a race he seems unwilling to give up.

Grade: A

My thought on today

Review: “Blue Valentine” (2010)

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” ~~H.L. Mencken

Maybe at first in love imagination does win over intelligence, as Mencken argued. But it’s inevitable that imagination doesn’t get to keep winning. One day unpretty, rational thinking, the bills-and-dead-car-batteries reality, takes over. For the more resilient couples, this is merely the beginning of a new phase of love; in Derek Cianfrance’s vivid, heartbreaking drama “Blue Valentine,” it is the beginning of the end for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Their fragile bond, built on the whimsy and giddiness of new love, cannot withstand the shift. And when the whimsy wears off, Dean and Cindy have nowhere to go but down.

With his focus on the whole story, told through flashbacks that blend the beginning, middle and end admirably, Cianfrance sets his film apart from other romantic dramas — or, to be more accurate, romantic melodramas. He does not paint over the ugly parts; nor does he allow “Blue Valentine” to descend into endless shrieking matches. Cianfrance also does not make the sweet moments of Dean and Cindy’s early courtship seem saccharine and larger-than-life. He starts the film when the 30something couple’s marriage is at the point of near-fracture. Dean’s fundamental lack of drive has begun to gnaw at Cindy, a nurse who wants to advance her career. What once seemed spontaneous and charming has become a constant source of frustration for Cindy. Dean, a hard-drinking house painter, can’t understand why just being Cindy’s husband and father to their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), isn’t enough. He doesn’t buy into the concept of potential, so he doesn’t think he’s squandering his. Still, Dean has a good heart, and in an 11th-hour bid to rekindle some of the old spark he books a hotel room. But too much booze and too many exposed nerves turn the evening gut-wrenchingly sour.

Interspersed in these tense scenes are the early days of Cindy and Dean’s relationship, from their chance meeting at a nursing home — where Cindy is visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) and Dean is moving furniture — and sweet first date to Cindy’s unexpected pregnancy and Dean’s clash with her volatile ex-boyfriend Dean (Mike Vogel). The flashbacks are rich in small but rich character details that Williams and Gosling underplay to great effect. Cindy’s interactions with her bullish father (John Doman) might explain her hunger for male attention and her attachment to Dean, the antithesis of violent-tempered men like her father. Dean’s attempt to woo Cindy — using a ukelele and a warbled love song — speaks to his tendency toward courtly love. He is a romantic at heart, an unrepentant one; there’s the suggestion that he sort of fancies himself the Prince Charming to Cindy’s distressed damsel. Nowhere does “Blue Valentine” capture this more beautifully than during Cindy and Dean’s impromptu courthouse wedding. They are caught thick in the haze of romance, wanting to rush forward, be reckless for the grand and heart-swelling cause of love. Underneath that love, though, there’s a tinge of desperation, the kind of subtle but vital emotion that only actors as compelling as Williams and Gosling could pull off.

To get to the gut level of this splintering relationship, Cianfrance relies on the intimacy of 16mm film and the dingy buildings in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. His true gift is making these locales change as Cindy and Dean’s relationship changes: at the start, these shop fronts and weedy concrete sidewalks seem inviting, whisper of promise. But near the end, they feel cool, dank and unwelcoming (the barroom hotel room lighting accomplishes this aim stunningly well). Remarkable as well are the gradual and sometimes painfully realistic changes Williams and Gosling give to their characters. The physical changes (both gained 15 pounds to play their 30-year-old selves) look authentic; what’s really incredible, however, is the way these actors adapt their characters. Both Williams and Gosling understand the power of body language and facial expressions. They are able to convey all aspects of Dean and Cindy’s life together with brutal clarity: the exciting spark of early romance; the shift to married life and raising a child; and their emotionally bruising final argument, the pressure-overwhelmed hole that causes the dam to break.    

 Grade: A

Review: “Pleasantville” (1998)

Humankind has an annoying tendency, on occasion, to regard the past with a sense of reverence. The 1950s, with all its poodle skirts and Buddy Holly toe-tappers, would seem innocent enough to deserve some nostalgia. But director Gary Ross is not interested in nostalgia for its own sake. So Ross’ stunningly lensed and frequently daring “Pleasantville”  is no love letter to this bygone time of dinner on the table at 5 p.m. “Pleasantville” is more a case for the 1990s as progress, a time when the world became much larger than Main Street, U.S.A.

If “Pleasantville” argues that the ’90s, for all the problems, point to improvement, then David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are the poster children. Ross’ extraordinarily creative script takes these two modern teens and drops them — through a time travel incident involving Don Knotts as an odd TV repairman — in an episode of David’s favorite black-and-white ’50s sitcom, “Pleasantville.” It’s a refreshing take on the fish-out-of-water scenario, since David and Jennifer aren’t just out of their element, they’re out of their era. The siblings find themselves in a very foreign world, where they are known as Bud and Mary Sue, the straight-laced children of Pleasantville, Ill., residents George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). David urges Jennifer to play along to keep Pleasantville’s universe in kilter, but playing by ’50’s rules proves harder than they imagined.

The real fun and substance of “Pleasantville” comes from David and Jennifer’s upheaval of Pleasantville. Ross uses the characters to poke fun at what he perceives as the naiveté of the 1958 suburban life. Jennifer, not the least bit demure, takes studly Skip (Paul Walker) for a backseat tumble at Lover’s Lane and gives the timid, unhappy Betty a lesson in the joys of masturbation. David encourages his boss at the soda shop, Bill (Jeff Daniels), to explore his love of painting and tells his fellow students about life outside of Pleasantville. He has them devouring “scandalous” books like “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” in no time. As more Pleasantville’s citizens open their minds, things turn technicolor — literally. The juxtaposition of black-and-white and color makes for some gorgeous scenery, but it infuriates Mayor Bob (J.T. Walsh). He forms a posse of like-minded traditionalists, including George, who’s reeling from his wife’s distant behavior, and declares Pleasantville’s answer to marshal law. The town’s “coloreds” become outcasts. Individuality is squashed, not with outright violence, but with a more underhanded Cold War approach.

Once techicolor invades this mild world of pleasantness, “Pleasantville” moves from comedy to commentary. The town’s separation of “coloreds” and those left in black-and-white is a clear allusion to the Civil Rights Movement. On another level, the struggle between the two groups represents the clash of ignorance and knowledge, or the receptiveness to new ideas. What’s truly impressive is the way Ross manages to juggle all these elements so well: the light-hearted comedy, the moving drama (Allen and Daniels shine brightest in this area), the pointed social commentary. All the elements come together brilliantly, especially in David and Bill’s climactic courtroom scene. These elements are helped along by the great set design and John Lindley’s superb cinematography. Apart from David’s comical meta-asides (“Oh my God … are we in that episode?” he muses), there’s scarcely a moment where “Pleasantville” doesn’t feel like an authentic window into the world in 1958. Ross has recreated an era long gone in amazing detail.

The actors take equal care in their performances. Maguire hits all the right notes as David, a high school nobody back home who seizes an opportunity to reinvent himself. Walsh possesses a singular gift for radiating quiet menace. And actors don’t come more talented and nuanced that Allen, Macy or Daniels. Macy and Daniels milk their lines for maximum comedy, but they don’t shy away from drama. The simmering sexual tension between Allen and Daniels is a nice counterpoint to Macy’s cluelessness; George has no idea why his wife would be discontent with sleeping in separate beds. Allen, though not the central focus of “Pleasantville,” commands the most attention. Betty’s slow, deliberate transformation from smiling unhappiness to freedom is a great triumph in a move filled with them.   

Grade: A

Casting pods

Award-winning blogger and podcaster Mad Hatter (don’t be bashful, sir; you know you earned that LAMMY) invited me to be his guest for Matineecast Episode 36. Visit his blog to hear us rave about “Bridesmaids,” bag on “Bad Teacher” and have a shared nerdgasm on the Ryan Reynolds-Nathan Fillion-“Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place” connection.

My thought on today

Lackluster writing, acting trash promising premise of “Bad Teacher”

Cameron Diaz shows students some tough love (or just pointless violence) in "Bad Teacher."

Alexander Pope warned that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) has a little learning. Very, very little. She has less ambition. So the fact that she’s a middle school teacher makes her dangerous enough to be considered a WMD, incinerating the egos and minds of the fragile, hyper-hormonal pre-teens in her classroom. God forbid these kids get too close — high as she is, she might try to eat them for breakfast. 

In theory, “Bad Teacher” should be a slam-dunk. With movie history littered with homages to dedicated, selfless teachers, who wouldn’t welcome a movie about an educator who hates teaching and sticks it to the education system every chance she gets? To a degree, that’s what director Jake Kasdan’s movie is, and it has the added bonus (for those who are, like, into that sort of thing) of a star who looks hot in platforms, jean cutoffs and a soaked plaid shirt. But while “Bad Teacher” has plenty of naughty lines, they’re all self-consciously naughty. They read like lines, and with Diaz’s delivery they feel completely artificial, hardly a natural extension of the character. It’s tough to buy into Elizabeth Halsey as anything other than a caricature — Jessica Rabbit, only blonde and with a pottymouth — because Diaz offers no nuance. She just looks bored.

The secondary characters in “Bad Teacher,” though, make things slightly more interesting. The best of the actors shine despite the lame gags (Justin Timberlake’s repulsive “wet jeans” scene comes to mind) and forced script. Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) supplies her trademark gawky humor and stellar comic timing as shy Lynn Davies, a fellow teacher and Elizabeth’s only friend. She warns Elizabeth about Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch, highly entertaining), the comically malicious busybody who romances the rich new sub, Scott Delacorte (Timberlake), before Elizabeth can get her money-grubbing hooks into him. Punch, who demonstrates a lovely lack of vanity, goes all-out to earn every laugh, and Amy’s unbridled desperation to win at everything only adds to the comedy. Jason Segel’s Russell, the average-guy gym teacher Elizabeth spurns repeatedly, has a few genuinely amusing moments, addressing one of his pale, artfully scruffy-haired students as “Twilight” and vehemently arguing with another that LeBron James is no Michael Jordan. The misfire (and it’s a sad one) is John Michael Higgins, comedian extraordinaire whose role as dolphin-crazy Principal Wally Snur is far too small. Given room to run, Higgins could have lived up to his character’s odd and inexplicably funny last name. 

Least interesting of all these is Elizabeth, who’s despicable up one side and down the other: rude, self-absorbed, petty, obsessed with money, possessed of a nasty sense of entitlement. She thinks the world owes her a living. These kinds of parts can be dynamite comedy with the right actors (free shots to Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Soke). Kasdan, however, seems to think audiences will find nastiness endearing because it’s Cameron Diaz in sky-high heels who’s being naughty. How misguided he is. Bad behavior is fun, occasionally even affecting, when it serves a purpose.  In James Mottern’s “Trucker,” for example, Michelle Monaghan’s rough-at-the-edges charm made for an unpredictable mother/son story. Here, Diaz succeeds in the broad physical comedy (think “The Sweetest Thing”) but lacks the nuance to pull of the Elizabeth. She can’t manage to give depth to the character. And the appeal of a hot, bored woman smoking a bowl in her car in the school parking lot, slamming her students in the face with kickballs and dry-humping a coworker’s boyfriend is decidedly limited. Diaz has made a profitable career of coasting on her hotness. That doesn’t mean Kasdan should too. It’s a lazy choice, and it derails “Bad Teacher” way before it can rumble and squeak its way to a pitiful, completely illogical ending.

Grade: C-

Hiatus

These past few months, I tell you what…

The beauty of being Southern is that the phrase “I tell you what…” is a complete thought. It appears not to say anything when really it says everything that can be said. Those four words are all-purpose and all-encompassing. So by “I tell you what…” I mean that February-May have been … trying. Fraught with anxiety and worry. Filled with realizations about hard, unwelcome life truths. A learning exercise in cancer and cancer treatment terminology I never want to repeat but know I will have to someday. An upcoming 30th birthday (see “hard, unwelcome truths” above). So for the rest of June I’m going to take a breather — just a little time to do some thinking, soul-searching and nerve-regenerating (the emotional kind, not the I’m-growing-back-my-severed-arm kind). But it’s inevitable that I’ll be back, since I can’t seem to stop scribbling movies.

Until then, I tell you what…

My thought on today