Movie Review: Zombieland

I know I’m really late with this one, but here goes. Zombieland is practically the American version of Britain’s Shaun of the Dead in that it features a cast of comedic characters in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The key difference between the films is that Sean was a by-the-numbers zombie movie parody and Zombieland is a bit more free form. There are fewer nods to the style and formula of zombie movies, fewer allusions to horror movie history. In the absence of tradition the filmmakers chose to go the less obvious route: packing the movie to the brim with class act comedy.

Zombieland centers around Jesse Eisenberg’s character Columbus wandering around a post-apocalyptic America. He runs into Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee) and they team up. They run into Emma Stone and Abagail Breslin, Wichita and Little Rock respectively. They team up. They crack jokes. Occasionally they fight zombies. There’s a really choice cameo. They fight some more zombies. That’s it.

Zombieland is like a really strong episode of the new NBC comedy Community. It sacrifices storytelling for jokes time and time again. This is usually a bad tactic, but in both cases the results are strong because the quality of the jokes is so high. Zombieland is unreasonably funny. Smart, tongue-in-cheek and vaguely serious all at the same time. There are certain choices that director Ruben Fleischer makes (like Columbus’s zombie survival rules appearing visually onscreen) that give the movie a real flair, and if it wasn’t for the ludicrously silly moments of the movie- the quest for Twinkies for God’s sakes- this could have been a hipper more stylized version of the same basic concept. In a way the sloppy execution of certain aspects of the storytelling really make Zombieland more endearing. If Sean of the Dead was about aping Romero’s zombie classics, Zombieland seems more concerned with mimicking Roger Corman.

And what’s the deal with Jesse Eisenberg anyway? Can he only star in movies with the word Land in the title? How did he fall into the Jason Schwartzman nerdy but charming guy leading man role so easily? In any case he’s great in this movie, as usual. People tend to give him shit because he always plays characters who are very similar to one another, but I don’t think those people understand how you get cast in movies. You get cast in movies by being able to deliver something people like. If it worked the first time, the entire Hollywood system is programmed to believe that you the viewer will like it a second time, as soon as they can rehire the crew and slap a ‘2’ on the poster. That means that once you make bank on a gimmick, you’d better stick with it for as long as the public will allow. Unless of course you’re serious about your craft and actually give a damn about acting. (I’m looking at you, Daniel Day Lewis.)

Everybody’s playing their schtick to its apex in this picture. Woody Harrelson is kind of dumb and kind of badass. Emma Stone is kind of tough and kind of hot. Abagail Breslin is both little and a girl, thus fulfilling the full extent of her contractual agreement. The only problem with the picture is that it’s ultimately unfulfilling on a basic level, like a dinner based entirely of cotton candy. It’s probably the ultimate distraction movie. It’s undeniably violent and remarkably hilarious. It’s rarely scary and mostly light. Afterward there isn’t the slightest chance you’ll be left with something lasting to really say about the picture besides, “You won’t believe the cameo!” (Spoiler: Pot kills!) The entire movie can be summed up in the same sentence as National Lampoon’s Vacation: “An unconventional family sets forth on a cross-country journey and hits many speed bumps along the way.” There’s even a Wally World at the end! (P.S. I’m not sure why anyone would think a Demon Drop / Power Tower ride would be a solid escape plan.)

I can’t really discuss my problems with this movie without giving too much away, but the truth is that if you’re looking for a good funny Halloween movie, this is the film for you. You’ll laugh consistently throughout and live vicariously through the characters as they whack zombies and wreak property damage on the ruins of America. Again, I can’t say much for the story, but I think my partial bias toward Sean of the Dead disables me from appreciating the movie as a fully original concept. Both films are great in their own rights, and quite different when it comes down to it. It feels weird saying this four reviews in a row, but I definitely recommend you check this movie out. Could this be the start of an incredible fall film and television line-up? My sources say, damn I hope so.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

After hearing some of the backlash against Where the Wild Things Are I’ve decided to try to remain impartial. I understand the complaints that the movie is too dark and didn’t contain the sense of childlike whimsy that the original picture book depicted. I fully acknowledge that the movie is dark and emotional and certainly not a comedy for children in the vein of Cars or Rush Hour. Frankly, that’s why I like it.

This film has Maurice Sendak’s seal of approval. It isn’t childlike or whimsical, granted. It is harsh and real. It is deep and guttural. When the wild things roar you want to roar with them. And there’s nothing make believe about this movie. Everything that happens is very real. The wild things aren’t cartoons or stereotypes or rasta-ized to appeal to marketing numbskulls like their CGI predecessors, Jar Jar Binks and Matthew McConaughey, no. They are real people. Almost disturbingly real and astonishingly innocent. The wild things behave as though they were a colony of orphans left abandoned on the island, more Lord of the Flies than Peter Pan. Without any rules or social conventions, the wild things exist in a world where destroying your friend’s home isn’t immoral. It’s simply something to do.

Not only are the wild things desperate, they’re also out of ideas. When a strange child dressed as a wolf plummets into their lives they’re basically at the end of their ropes. Both socially and literally speaking the village is falling apart around them, and when Max (the aptly named actor Max Records) appears to them from nowhere, it’s easy to see why they mistake him for a savior. Still their society is in such upheaval that the wild things aren’t sure whether to hug Max or eat him. As the story unfolds, Max is forced to learn what it means to be a savior to a group of individuals and how difficult it is to be a parent figure to anyone.

I’m an unabashed fan of Spike Jonze. Adaptation is one of my all time favorite movies. Having said that, this might be Jonze’s masterpiece. I don’t know how much closer he could come to making a perfect film. Technically speaking it’s as if he captured the visual brilliance of Science of Sleep and attached a story to it that was actually likable. The wild things are a work of visual brilliance, and the voice work aside, it’s no shock that early set reports suggested that the process was problematic. The wild things are that brilliant blending of animation and tactile practical effects that really allow me to lose myself in a story. I don’t care whether or not they’re really real. To me the wild things are as real as you can possibly get on film.

As for the voice work itself Catherine O’Hara and James Gandolfini give some of their finest performances in this movie. It’s one of those rare instances, like Albert Brooks’ performance in Finding Nemo, where the voice work rivals some of the actors’ best live action work. James Gandolfini is alternatively adorable and terrifying. That’s a delicate tightrope to catwalk and he does it flawlessly. Catherine O’Hara has a troubled and snarky character to perform, which she does with incredible aplomb. Some have told me they were distracted by the voice of KW (Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under), but I never saw enough of that show to really make a mental record of the actress’s vocal patterns. She played the character well and had an honest charm that made her wild thing seem feminine in spite of its big hairy beard. Now that’s acting!

But back to the darkness, yes, there is plenty of it. What could have easily been a happy sunshine Disney romp is actually a childhood drama if anything. Max is a terror around the house, torturing the dog, biting family members and playing pranks on his sister. When the wild things ask him to be their king, they really should have asked for a background check. Max hooks the wild things on some grift about killing Vikings and the poor rubes actually buy it. While being king seems fun to Max at first it turns out to be a lot of work, and he finds out that when the monsters asked him to keep their sadness away, they weren’t kidding. The wild things are lonely, unappreciated and jealous. They seek approval from a higher authority. While Max has spent his entire childhood taking his family for granted, here is a group of creatures that seek nothing more than the comfort of knowing someone bigger cares for them.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the story for you, but just know that Where the Wild Things Are is an experience. It might not be quite what you expected, but I ask that you keep an open mind to the experience at hand. The beautiful sorrowful honesty contained in this picture is enough to remind any child at heart what it was really like to be a kid, without all the sugar coating. And look around you in the theater. The kids like it. (Remember, this is the Harry Potter generation. These kids eat death for breakfast.)

Grade: A+

Movie Review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man is an uncompromising tale, densely packed with nuance and detail as well as the trademark charm synonymous with the name Coen. Absent from the film are the lackluster and arbitrary storytelling decisions found in recent Coen Brothers fare like Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Instead the Coens keep the relatively small story of a nebbish yet well-meaning family man piping with entertainment by forgoing cheap and easy laughs for the sake of real human pathos.

Primarily A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor (played aptly by relative newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life takes an unforeseen nosedive when his wife’s fidelity comes into question. It also tells the story of Larry’s son Danny who is perched on becoming a man at his upcoming Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen where I felt a distinct disadvantage for being gentile, as my mostly Orthodox neighbors in Los Angeles laughed at jokes I couldn’t possibly comprehend, delivered wholly in Hebrew. I wouldn’t bring it up except for the fact that A Serious Man is by its very nature a story about Jewish storytelling and the tales the Jewish people pass down through the generations to bring them solace or hope. My extensive grade school bible-beating and that one Hebrew Narrative class I took at Northwestern (thank you, Professor Ben Solomon) helped me a little, but the majority of this film deals with a narrative tradition so intrinsically Jewish it made me feel more than a little out of the loop when it came to deciphering it. Thankfully, I’m always up for a challenge when it comes to complex storytelling, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t go a little Gorillas in the Mist on it for you.

When I say that A Serious Man is uncompromising, I mean that it doesn’t hold your hand at any point while watching it, and it certainly doesn’t spoon-feed you an ending. I, for one, am a huge fan of this tactic. In an age where technological monstrosities like Transformers 2 literally ravage our eye sockets for three hours while begging to labeled as “entertainment,” it was nice to see some competent filmmakers turn back to oral tradition, the method of verbally passing stories down from one generation to the next, as the basis for their narrative structure. A Serious Man opens with a seemingly unrelated ghost story immersed in Jewish culture. Never do we return to this prologue or acknowledge its existence in a literal way. It merely sets the tone and gives us a sense that yes, there were people living their lives with their own customs and cultures before our protagonists ever existed. How could an unrelated prologue serve as a strong narrative device, especially one strong enough to open a film?

Protip: It’s not really unrelated. Throughout Larry Gopnik’s trials and tribulations it seems that only one thing is certain: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Bad things happen to Larry at an exponential rate, and as he turns to his rabbinical leaders for guidance, their inexperience and impersonal methods fail to comfort him. None of the rabbis offer a concrete method for hope. They only remind him that his people have suffered before, and the implication is that suffering needlessly is a part of being Jewish. A sensible and good-intentioned man, Larry is pushed to the brink of breaking his code of morality by the film’s conclusion. The question is, will he be rewarded or punished further for his actions?

Without spoiling anything, I’ll admit that I was startled when the credits started to roll, only because I expected there to be another half-hour of movie left. As I exited the theater, I realized the Coen Brothers had crafted what might be their most perfect film, a tightly contained universe bound in the tradition and oppression of their ancestors, deftly compressed into a microcosm of Jewish suffering through the seemingly mundane life of a single unlucky man. Everything you need to get out of A Serious Man is right in front of your eyes, but because it isn’t handed to you it might be a little harder to spot. The moral ambiguity of The Man Who Wasn’t There abounds, but unlike that dark and plodding tale, this film has a richer history than the Coen’s oft-visited pulp noir genre of storytelling. Not that noir hasn’t served the Coen’s well in the past (see: Barton Fink, The Big Lebowksi, all the rest of them for cryin’ out loud) but sometimes the well runs dry when you’re pirating motifs from a relatively recently birthed genre (as old as film itself perhaps? Call my bluff on this one, please), and smartly enough the Coens went back to their personal history for guidance.

I recommend this movie so highly that I almost say you should skip Where the Wild Things Are this weekend to catch A Serious Man while it’s still in theaters. However, both films are incredibly strong (for different reasons, more on WtWTA to come) and if you’re looking for a brilliant, sincere and adult drama with many comedic moments you’ll have no trouble finding yourself satisfied at the movies this weekend.

Grade: A+