LAND OF THE DEAD (2005)
Just as a side note, this column marks an entire year of movie reviews. Hard to believe, isn't it? It sure feels like ten or fifteen, just from the way I'm incredibly sick of movies now!
This all started because I could never remember what had happened in a horror movie called Midnight Mass. I'd fall asleep or get drunk during its course, so I never knew what I was missing. That worried me.
So I started writing it down as I would watch twenty minutes or so per night, so I'd be able to remember the plot. Of course, as it turned out, there was nothing memorable at all in the film, so the whole thing was actually a colossal waste of time and energy. On the positive side, I never worry about missing anything important. I know it just isn't there!
On to this month's batch of films, all released during 2005.
Hitch Starring: Will Smith, Kevin James, Eva Mendes, Amber Valletta. Director: Andy Tennant. Screenwriter: Kevin Bisch.
If being utterly, totally, and completely predictable was a sin, most if not all of Hollywood would be damned today. And, hey, maybe they all are. But still, Hitch, despite being utterly, etc, predictable, succeeds. Why? Because of charm.
Will Smith, as the date doctor of the title, is completely charming in the role. Kevin James, as the klutz who Smith has deigned to help, is also charming in his sincerity. And the ladies who are the (forgive me) targets of these men are also utterly charming, despite Eva Mendes’ bitchyness (designed for audience sympathy when she finally melts) and Amber Valletta’s rich klutziness (designed for…oh, you guessed it!). Everyone (except the villain) is so completely charming that it is easy to overlook that, a few minutes after our characters were introduced, I charted the whole arc of the movie and wasn’t wrong at all. Come on, it’s formula: someone says this will happen, naturally, this will happen, but only after there have been the usual difficulties (secrets revealed, a misunderstanding, the misunderstanding compounded, and so on).
The one thing I couldn’t agree with, here, was Mr. Smith’s confession to Amber Valletta that he hadn’t helped Kevin James in the slightest (since…well, you can guess, right?). The truth is, he helped Mr. James immensely, not by direct advice, but by the simple idea to trust in oneself, to have the courage of one’s convictions, and to never loosen one’s hold on hope. Mr. James may have done the work largely on his own, but it took Mr. Smith to show him where to ply his talents.
Again, Mr. Smith’s and Ms. Mendes’s ultimate fate was preordained as if by a Greek tragedian, but it was a fun and sometimes startling route by which we were led to what we all knew was coming.
In short, it’s a fun film. More than that, it’s a charming film. Perhaps Mr. Smith (as he admits in the film’s closing moments) is not so wrong as he suspects. Indeed, it seems everyone is now using his techniques, for the betterment of all. If that’s not what a superhero does, I don’t know the meaning of the word.
But I do know the meaning of the word charm. And this film embodies it. Buy it? Your call. Rent it? Please do!
Land of the Dead Starring: Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Eugene Clark. Director and screenwriter: George A. Romero.
Land of the Dead is the first George Romero film I’ve seen in a theatre (during a first run) since Creepshow, back in the early 1980s. And I think it’s the best film he’s made since Dawn of the Dead, back in 1979.
That, as you may have noticed, is quite a gap. Much as I like Land, I don’t think it’s going to represent a return to glory for Mr. Romero. Too many have plowed the fields he first tilled since way back in 1968. It’s a pity, because not only is it his best film in a while, it’s also the best zombie film in a long time. (Considering the competition, I’m not sure how much that constitutes praise.)
For the most part, modern zombie films are defined by Mr. Romero’s work in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. He’s the only film-maker (to my knowledge) who actually uses zombies as zombies, with all that that entails. Even a superior film like 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead uses zombies not for what they are, but because they’re a (fairly) easily obtainable menace. The “rage” victims in 28 Days Later could just as easily be rats or wild dogs for all the impact their once-removed-from-you-and-me state indicates.
Not so Land of the Dead. These zombies were clearly people, and in the person of Big Daddy, are becoming a kind of people again. His howling anger and despair when he sees his fellows cut down by soldiers is the most resonant emotional reaction in the entire film. Mr. Romero’s previous entry, the disappointing Day of the Dead, had as its most “human” character the zombie called Bub; his memories were slowly leaking back into him, and he was on the verge of becoming domesticated. Big Daddy on the other hand, while still retaining some memory of his previous life, is becoming not a shadow of humanity, but his own being, and others of his kind are inspired to follow him. (It’s instructive that we never see Big Daddy--or his main followers--eating anyone. I think that would tend to make him less empathetic.)
I must confess that I feel confused about how I am supposed to feel about some of the ideas in this film. In this world, the rich have sealed themselves inside a skyscraper, where they pore over frivolities and trinkets. We’re supposed, I think, to feel them shallow and wrong, but we never see much of them other than furtive glimpses; even when the zombies attack, we only get flashes of their pain. I get the feeling we’re supposed to think, a la Day of the Dead, that these people deserve their grisly fate. So we're not allowed to get close to them.
Like the similar ending to the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead (which George Romero wrote), I find that a bit disturbing. It’s as if, holding the right opinions, being the right sort of person, voting for the right person, is far more important than any kind of shared humanity. Being eaten by zombies is the best you can hope for, if you don’t think the right thoughts.
Alas, by “right,” of course, I mean “left.” But since the fate of the people in Land mostly consists of a lot of screaming and very few visuals, it’s a curiously defanged criticism.
Secondly, I understand we’re supposed to think Dennis Hopper is evil incarnate, because he wears a suit and hoards money. He's thus rich and thus, in movie terms, evil. But that’s really all we see of Mr. Hopper, though the performance is a terrific one, easily the best in the film. (Eugene Clark, as Big Daddy, runs a close second.) How do we know he's a bad guy? Well, he's rich. And he pays John Leguizamo to do some unspecified dirty work, though I guess he doesn't pay him enough, as that's a major plot point. (Honestly, I think the best comment on money in a post-zombie world was the scene in Dawn where Ken Foree and David Emge stroll through the ropes in the mall bank, smiling for the security cameras. "You never know," says Ken, holding a wad of money, but I think we all do.)
Romero has been cursed by the success of his first film, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, in more ways than one. The first and most visible part of the curse is that he is thought of as a horror-movie director. He's a sharp and intelligent film-maker and could probably make any kind of movie he wanted to, and make the film a thoughtful and entertaining one; but people think "horror movie director" and hire him to make horror movies only. He wants to get funding for his next project, there'd better be blood and guts in it. If he wants a guarantee, there'd better be zombies, too.
The second part of the curse is a bit more subtle, but I think it has hurt Mr. Romero even more. Due to the casting of Duane Jones in Night, the film has been examined repeatedly for its social and political commentary, even though Romero has always said that Mr. Jones was cast because he was the best actor, and not as any kind of statement.
But I think Mr. Romero read those reviews, and took them to heart. Pretty much everything he's made since then has had a social or political subtext, but deliberately placed there this time. Dawn had some rather blatant subtext, but the film was entertaining enough and the characters likeable enough that one could overlook it. It remained subtext. Not so with Day of the Dead, which sank beneath the weight of its polemics. Other than Bub, the film had no characters, just embodied viewpoints.
That, thankfully, doesn't happen with Land of the Dead. I think Mr. Romero's learned that he should tone it down, a bit, and I think the box office success of Land is proof that he learned well. The problem might be that he's toned it down a bit too much; his characters (generally a very interesting bunch) don't seem to embody much of anything beyond self-interest. No one seems to have any kind of "big picture" thoughts. Except perhaps for Dennis Hopper, but oh yeah, he's rich and evil. So never mind.
But I hope I'm not turning you away from this movie. This is a fun movie, if your definition of fun allows people being disemboweled by zombies. I strongly urge you to see it if you're a horror movie fan, and even if you're not a fan, the film is good enough to be enjoyed by anyone interested in intelligent film-making and storytelling. The only real criticisms I have are pretty minor ones (you'd think soldiers would be somewhat less incompetent dealing with zombies, but perhaps years of quiet times have made them lazy; I find it hard to believe that Butcher's butcher knife is still as sharp as it is; the idea of zombies still garbed as they were in life is as silly as it was in Day--there's a mass zombie outbreak, are you going to your job as bandstand musician?). Minor, minor quibbles. Major, major entertainment.
Don't wait until the end of the world to see it. You don't want to see it when the zombies have taken over, you know what the'll will have at the concession stand...and it ain't popcorn.
Madagascar Starring: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkette Smith, David Schwimmer, Cedric the Entertainer. Directors: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Screenwriters: Mark Burton, Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
A fun film with a lot of energy (sometimes, for someone my age, it has a bit too much energy, and crosses into frantic), Madagascar can be enjoyed by all ages. Which is one of the remarkable things about it, when you sit down and really look at some of the jokes.
First, some basics. The story concerns a group of animals from the Bronx Zoo who are generally pretty happy with their lives. The exception is the zebra, who would like to experience life in the wild. Through some funny mishaps, he and his three best friends (a lion, a hippo and a giraffe) accidentally end up in the wilds of Madagascar.
That’s the first part. The second part concerns the lion’s discovery that he’s a carnivore, and without regular feedings, his friends begin to look pretty edible. At this point, the zebra becomes a secondary character and we pretty much ride the lion’s story to the end.
The stories are largely a framework for the jokes to hang on, but there some other elements that bear mentioning, such as some cute lemurs, some scene-stealing penguins and some nice ideas about how our inner natures can be conquered, though only temporarily—we always end up being who we are. And lots and lots of jokes.
Ah, the jokes. They’re all over the map, the jokes. And some of them, I don’t see how kids could understand the punchlines. Let me give you two examples:
In one scene, the lemurs are talking about some other native carnivores who have it in for them, and one holds up a book called “To Serve Lemurs” and shouts, “It’s a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!”
This is a reference to the old Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man” which has a similar punchline.
The second is when the lion, who dislikes life in the wild, builds a giant Statue of Liberty on the beach in order to attract passing ships. Due to a mishap, most of the statue burns down, leaving only the head and upraised arm; distraught, the lion sinks to his knees and says, “You did it, you really did it! Darn you all to heck!”
This is a reference to the original Planet of the Apes, which had a similar scene (where the language was more PG-13).
The point is that kids today can’t really have a direct experience of these moments in their original contexts, so how do they get the jokes?
My first thought was that they couldn’t, that these jokes were put in for the adults (or to amuse the animators themselves), but there are so many of these kinds of references that this seems an unlikely answer.
My second thought is that maybe these are just funny in and of themselves. As another example, one dream sequence has the lion falling into a bed of steaks while steaks rain down from the sky; apparently this parallels a bit from the film American Beauty, which I’ve never seen. To me, it just seemed an amusing way of pointing out the lion’s increasing desperation over his situation, and the fact that he likes steak a lot.
Another possibility is that everyone already knows about these things, without having seen the originals. They’ve been referenced and parodied and rebuilt so many times that they’ve become second nature to all of us. Even today, all someone has to do is mention “a really big shoe” and we think: Ed Sullivan. Or someone who’s imitated him. The point is, we get the message right away, even if Ed Sullivan died before we were born.
It’s pretty astonishing how much these cultural references seem to have seeped into our everyday lives like this, so that a film like Madagascar can have these dozens of jokes and everyone has a good time.
Ultimately, to return to the film at hand, that’s the main thing. I enjoyed Madagascar a great deal, liked the characters a lot, laughed at the jokes, and had a fun time at the end. Recommended, for kids of all ages. You don't have to be media savvy to have fun. Go wild!
So much for one year of movie reviews. I'll continue to blab my fool head off during the next twelve months, too (taking two off, because). We'll continue to wade through the Treeline box set, you and I (well, I will) and there'll be surprises, too. Actually, there probably won't be any surprises, but you're supposed to say those kinds of things.