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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+

Double TTC feature: “The Expendables,” “Piranha 3D”

(Rare it is that not one but TWO films come along that duke it out for top billing in Terrifically Terrible Cinema. But “The Expendables” came along, and then “Piranha 3D” — it was a perfect storm-like convergence of events — and both are so awesomely bad that they must stand together as the most fun you’ll have in what’s left of summer 2010.)

“The Expendables”
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke

Sly Stallone the director and writer, with a few exceptions, does not do subtlety. This is a foreign and unwelcome concept to him, kind of like sap is to Quentin Tarantino. So anyone who waltzed into “The Expendables” expecting anything more profound than a messy, magnificent orgy of testosterone, guts and violence deserves, quite frankly, to be disappointed. In short, “The Expendables” is a certain kind of movie for a certain kind of person: a person who likes to see things — and people — get blown up in large and exhilarating and nasty ways. That’s Stallone’s plan, and he sticks to it using a time-honored formula that requires enjoyably overexaggerated bad guys (a hearty high-five to Eric Roberts for looking so suave while being so evil) to bump heads with quippy, sweaty, rough-edged hero types — “the other guys.” This gaggle of mercenaries who accept suicide missions includes former SAS soldier Barney Ross (Stallone); Lee Christmas (Statham), aces with a blade; martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li); Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren), a sniper dangerously frayed around the edges; Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a weapons specialist; and Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert. Their newest mission is their most perilous yet: These comically named specialists must overthrow Mexican dictator General Garza (David Zayas), whose outrageous accent and furrowed brow fairly scream Very Bad Guy. But all too often behind every ferocious dictator there is an even more deadly financier, and so it is with CIA agent-gone-rogue James Munroe (Roberts), who is positively Idi Amin-like in his greed and lust for power. Barney, Lee and their pals, of course, really loathe such men – especially because they are qualmless about abusing beautiful women (Giselle Itié) with a lot of spunk – and mean to punish them as slowly and painfully as possible. This is where “The Expendables” excels, because Stallone knows deep in his burly soul how to make things explode in ways that will elicit a collective “HELL yeah!” from his viewers. The fight scenes – like Stallone’s throwdown with Steve Austin , or Li’s faceoff with Lundgren – are thrilling, while Crews’ gun should be the basis for a new world religion. Other facets of the movie aren’t quite so impressive, like Stallone and Couture’s forced performances, but Statham, Roberts and Mickey Rourke (an ex-Expendable who now gently weeps over his tattoo needle) are a hoot and a half. And that’s just what summer 2010 needed.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Piranha 3D”
Starring Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O’Connell

The tagline for Alexandre Aje’s gory bootyfest “Piranha 3D” really should have read: “It’s your only chance this year to see a penis get devoured by a fish — in 3D.” There are many other similarly ludicrous things that happen in this remake of a remake of a remake, but the penis-as-a-palate-cleanser signals the film’s intentions. They are not honorable; in fact, they are not even in the town housing the ballpark of honorable. Aje has one goal and one goal only in this raucous, raunchy sendup to horror film cliches, ham-fisted dialogue and even worse acting: to entertain. And entertain he does, in nearly every way imaginable. “Piranha,” besides being a gem of a 3D film (who wouldn’t rather a piranha explode off the screen than watch sweaty kids shake their moneymakers?), is a barrel of laughs — some goofy and stupid and crude, others highbrow, or at least middlebrow, jabs at films like “Jaws,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “Titanic.” There’s also an unusual ensemble cast with a few surprise cameos. The screwball plot, as it were, goes like so: An earthquake rocks Lake Victoria, setting loose a school of prehistoric piranhas trapped in deep caverns below. Because Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor and impeccable timing, this happens during Spring Break, when teeming throngs of drunk, nubile young hardbodies fill the waters with vomit and pheromones. Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) and a team of seismologists must get medieval (tee hee) on the tushes of these man-eating relics to save the lives of these hormonal horndogs, including Julie’s straight-laced son Jake (McQueen), his smokin’ crush Kelly (Jessica Szohr), a leering Joe Francis wannabe (O’Connell, an explosion of zeal and sleaze) and his bikini-clad, balloon-chested leading ladies. Oh, and there’s even time for Doc Brown himself to swoop in, though not even a DeLorean can save these teens from becoming shrieking bait worms. There’s not a thing serious about “Piranha,” not even half a teaspoon of nuance, but that’s why it clicks. With everyone – even the normally reticent Shue, who’s clearly suppressing some grins – delighting in this smorgasbord of cheese, it’s hard not to get hooked. (For the real hard-sells out there, a penis gets eaten in 3D. Unless porn goes 3D, answer opportunity when it raps on the door.)

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A