Sunday, June 29, 2008

#5: Diary of the Dead vs. Thriller


Diary of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero
U.S. debut September 20, 2007

Directed by John Landis
Written by John Landis and Michael Jackson
MTV Premiere December 2, 1983

Look: I LOVES me some zombie movies.

This love undoubtedly stems from a Halloween night fairly early in my youth, when my mother let me stay up late and watch George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It was like no horror movie I had ever seen before (and with two older brothers, I had watched many horror movies behind my parents' backs). By the early 1980's, the horror genre was pretty much overtaken by slasher films like the Friday the 13th franchise, the Halloween sequels, and so on.

Here was this black and white movie where the "bad guy" was basically humanity itself; the manifestation of our society's fear of death. The "monster" was the idea that there is no Hell or Heaven, and we are doomed to either die by the hands of our loved ones or be the ones to consume them ourselves. Romero's most important message in Night, and pretty much all of his subsequent zombie movies, was that even with these horrifying creatures roaming the land, the real threat to existence was our own fucked up society. While Romero insists that his casting of a African American as the protagonist in his film was not a statement on race, it's hard to deny the impact of the film's ending, where Duane Jones' Ben is murdered by a posse of white rednecks.

If you need some context, just consider the fact that NotLD was released the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

I was hooked, and went along for continued rides with Romero on the increasingly awesome Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I've followed Romero even closer than that, from older films like The Crazies to later stuff like Creepshow and The Dark Half. He's one of my favorite horror directors.

That said, I hate to admit that Diary of the Dead is pretty awful.

If 2005's lackluster Land of the Dead was the start of a downward trajectory in Romero's Dead series, Diary is the insanely steep drop-off point. Here Romero attempts to "reboot" his series by making a more homemade, down-to-earth re-introduction to the zombie apocalypse he presented in Night of the Living Dead. He also experiments with a new way of telling the story by presenting it as a pseudo-documentary being shot by characters in the movie itself (the old "movie within a movie" trick).

The effect is somehow the reverse of what Romero intended: because the acting is so bad and the "reality" of the docu-style footage so unrealistic, the viewer is taken even further out of the movie experience. It becomes so obvious that this is a movie that everything the story hinges on -- this idea that this is hand-shot footage of the zombie epidemic and its aftermath -- fails to coalesce into something that engrosses the audience. It tries to be a part of our world, with references to the Internet, blogs and YouTube, but it just winds up feeling like it was written by someones technophobic grandpa.

The movie is not helped one iota by the presence of a narrator, one of the survivors from the movie unspooling before us, whose droning, apathetic voice almost immediately begins to bother. Narration is a tricky thing in a movie, and can so often be done poorly. At its worst, it treats the audience like idiots who couldn't possibly piece together a story. Diary of the Dead is narration at its worst.

"We made a film," says the unenthused voiceover, "the one I'm going to show you now." I challenge you not to laugh as the narrator says, "I've added music occasionally, for effect. Hoping to scare you. You see, in addition to trying to tell you the truth, I am hoping to scare you. So that maybe you'll... wake up." The title of the documentary these idiots have apparently made? The Death of Death.

Ho. Ly. Shit.

There is more ham served in introduction to our young student filmmakers then at most Irish funerals. Overacting is especially noticeable when the people being filmed aren't supposed to be acting at all. The horrible dialogue comes at such a fast clip that you'll have a hard time deciding which lines to rewind and hear again to confirm, "Did he really just fucking say that?"

These lines include gems like:
- "The problem doesn't seem to be that people are waking up dead, but that dead people are waking up."
- "Fuckin' mummies get all the girls."
- "We've come here concerned about people crossing the border into our country. But that's not the problem anymore. The problem now is all those creatures crossing the border between life and death."
- "What's wrong with him?" "He's dead! That's what's wrong with him!"

My favorite howler is spoken by a Japanese woman, who atones: "Don't bury dead, first shoot in head!"

Like all of Romero's previous zombie efforts, there is an underlying message. Typically, I'd use the word "subtext," but with this movie, the "subtext" commentary on our fame and information obsessed society is so obvious that you'll be looking for an underlying movie beneath the message. Subtlety does not exist in this dojo, sensei. When you're dealing with a main character who won't follow his friends out of a zombie-infested hospital just so he can charge his video camera, there's no need to look too far beneath the surface of things.

Aside from the atrocious acting and ridiculous characters, the most disappointing aspect of Diary is the extreme lack of entertainment value. While the special effects are gory and realistic (Romero consistently delivers those goods, it's one of the few reliable things in life), the characters and their choices annoy so much that the horror is never frightening. Worst of all, it's just no damn fun at all.

Before playing my movie, I was browsing the Video section of XBox Live and decided to download Michael Jackson's short film/music video, "Thriller." I've watched the 13 minute ode to horror movies three times now and I can honestly say: "Thriller" is a better zombie/horror movie than Diary of the Dead.

I don't give a shit what the world thinks of MJ now, but back when "Thriller" premiered, he was pretty much the fucking mack. No one else on the planet would have gotten away with a 13 minute zombie musical. And talk about meta: this was a video for a song about scary movies, featuring a movie within a movie.

MTV played it like clockwork.

And why not? Directed by John Landis after An American Werewolf in London was a box office hit, it opens with an homage to creature feature horror films of the 1950s, with Michael asking his girl to go steady (hearing him say "I'm not like the other guys" might literally kill you with hilarity) before morphing into a badass teenage werecat that knocks over trees with a single bitch slap.

It is revealed that we're watching Micheal Jackson and his girlfriend watch a movie featuring actors who look exactly like Micheal Jackson and his girlfriend. She is too scared to sit through the movie, so they exit to the street, where Micheal serenades his girlfriend as they walk down what is about to become the worst street in the world. Cue the fog-filled cemetery and a surprisingly creepy scene of the dead rising from their graves, all set to the funky sounds of VINCENT PRICE... RAPPING! If any potential blogger is reading tonight and can't think of a title for their blog, I highly suggest "The funk of 40 thousand years."

Mike and his girl find themselves surrounded by the undead, and then WHAMMO, we get a fucking incredible zombie dance number. MJ, in full zombie make-up, looks bad as hell.

Following that is a zombie attack on an abandoned house, and then the classic horror movie twist: it was all a dream... or was it? The whole thing is pretty much a blast and takes 1/8th the amount of time to entertain you as Romero's movie takes to fail.

Now, to be fair, it probably cost Romero the same to shoot the feature length Diary as Jackson spent to make "Thriller," but the problem with Diary is never budgetary. It was the acting, the writing, the unbelievable character motivations.

Perhaps Romero has spent so much time with the undead that he has forgotten how real people act.

For more on Thriller:
- Watch a poor quality version of the video for yourself at YouTube. Seek out a better copy if possible.
- All kindsa info, trivia and more at and

For more on Diary of the Dead:
- More information at Wikipedia and IMDB
- Clips and more at the movie's official MySpace page
- Buy Diary of the Dead at Amazon

Official movie trailer:

Saturday, June 28, 2008

#4: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson
Released September 26, 2007

When you think about yourself at 80 years old, what do you imagine yourself doing? If you're answer is any more elaborate than "drooling, shitting my pants and complaining about 'Kids these days,'", you're fooling yourself. Honestly, most of us here aren't even going to see the octogenarian milestone before we become worm food.

Sidney Lumet was 83 years old when he made Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a tense and virtually Shakespearean tragedy about two brothers and a jewel heist gone horribly wrong. The fact that Lumet has directed one of his finer movies so late into his twilight years defies the generally accepted notion that artists do their best work in their youth.

Of course, Lumet had a number of directorial missteps throughout his career, from the unintentionally comic Vin Diesel production Find Me Guilty (created one year before Devil) to the fairly awful re-make of Gloria with Sharon Stone in the title role... or A Stranger Among Us... or The Wiz...

Okay. So it seems when you're doing your thing for 60 years, you're going to have some crap mixed in with your cream. Most directors would kill to have made movies like 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, Network, Prince of the City, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

If Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't a return to form (there are plenty of plot holes and a few directorial choices that I found questionable), it is at the very least a resurgence of Lumet's skillset, and possibly one of the better filmed/looking movies of his career.

Devil opens with as striking a visual cacophony as you're bound to see in this life: the exquisitely beautiful and well-aged Marisa Tomei getting drilled by a sweaty, lumpy Philip Seymour Hoffman. You may feel the need to check the back of the DVD box to see if this movie is categorized as Science Fiction.

Hoffman and Tomei engage in some post-coital nostalgia about a vacation they'd spent together. If you'll pardon the euphemism, it's here that the seed for Hoffman's eventual heist is planted. Because of the choppy, anti-chronological way Lumet presents the story, it takes a while to piece together his motivation.

Soon, we meet Hank (a surprisingly good Ethan Hawke), fuck-up younger brother to Hoffman's seemingly successful Andy. It doesn't take long to figure out why he decides to follow his brother's plan to rob a certain suburban jewelry store.

I'm not giving anything away by saying the heist goes awry. You can't possibly imagine, however, how awry the robbery -- and its aftermath -- go. As the tension and the body count mount, the movie becomes more and more bleak until you're begging for the sweet release of an ending. As sick as it sounds, I mean that in a good way.

I really enjoyed Devil (at least as much as one can enjoy such a dark experience with few, if any, likeable characters), but I found a few notes out of sync. Tomei holds her own for of the movie, but her acting eventually crumbles under the weight of the material as the movie progresses. There is a particular scene with a suitcase that I'll use as my Exhibit A. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Things get a bit melodramatic (though never unbelievable), so if you aren't invested in the film by the halfway point, I'd recommend shutting it off. A few of the choices made by side characters near the finale are questionable. Unfortunately, I can't go into any more questions or complaints without ruining key plot points.

I was also disappointed that Albert Finney was a bit underused as the father of the two brothers. The one-or-two-note performance isn't really Finney's fault since we don't get to see his character in any real context prior to the robbery. Perhaps his anger and grief would be a bit more resonant if we more of him before the crime?

The DVD commentary, provided by Hoffman, Hawke and Lumet, wavers between informative, engaging and laughably pretentious, especially as Hoffman and Hawke get esoteric on the subject of acting. I laughed out loud when Hawke asserted that when Tomei acts, "The air just moves through her." I love Philip Seymour Hoffman and could only hope he was thinking, "What the fuck is this guy talking about?" Sadly, he plays right along.

As a side note and possible selling point, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Marisa Tomei spends almost the entire movie naked. You know, if you're into that sort of thing...

For more on Before the Devil Knows You're Dead:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- Uh. A French site for the movie?
- Buy Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at Amazon

(P.S.: Anyone got a link to a more indie video store/company? is doing just fine, financially. I'd love to help some other places out. Maybe Facets in Chicago?

Official movie trailer:
I have to add a caveat here: I watched this without seeing a preview or having much prior knowledge at all. This preview gives away massive chunks of plot points that I think you might enjoy not knowing going into the film. Clicker beware, is all I'm trying to say.

#3: Lars and the Real Girl

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Released October 25, 2007

My uncle Tony is pretty much the definition of a man's man. Machismo seeping out of his pores, he's the kind of dude who can't wait to call you a "pussy" for doing things like, I don't know, using an umbrella or saying you're going to go to bed after sharing a few too many beers with him.

Luckily his machismo is the harmless, endearing kind and not the kind that makes dudes take off their shirts before getting into fistfights (which really, when you think about it, is just about the gayest thing ever).

Here's a good example: When I was about 20 years old, my whole family went out to North Carolina for a family vacation. Uncle Tony, in his quest to make his night of cooking (everyone took turns doing lunches and dinners) as macho as possible, bought a hot sauce so ridiculously hot that he had to sign a waiver at the store that he would only use it for cooking and not for pranks or other shenanigans.

Naturally, his meal was almost inedible. Also, he and my father attempted to use the hot sauce in a prank. While my two older brothers (who admittedly were acting like a couple of pricks for the majority of this trip) were off on some excursion in town, my dad and uncle decided to pour hot sauce into their swimming trunks. This plan backfired almost immediately when the fumes from the hot sauce got into their eyes and they spent a half hour in the beach house's outdoor shower screaming like burn victims as they took turns dousing their eyeballs clean.

Like true sweethearts, they threw the trunks into the pool after deciding that no one deserved the punishment that they had just dealt themselves.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when Tony recommended Lars and the Real Girl to me a few weeks back. I had actually heard other glowing reviews from friends and co-workers, but the one from Tony was the final vote that made me decide to check it out. Tony typically has great taste in movies, but is also not one to deal with extraneous artistic bullshit.

I was even more surprised by my own reaction to Lars. Billed as a comedy, the movie is actually as subtle, touching and as sweet of a movie that anyone could possibly make about a guy falling in love with his lifelike latex sex doll.

It's a credit to director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver that this movie swerves in the opposite direction every single time you think it's going to be played for shock value or cheap laughs. Rather than turn the premise into the next distasteful sex comedy, it tweaks your expectations constantly, making you feel an honest connection to Lars's family, himself. . . even the doll. What could have been filthy, creepy or embarrassing becomes undeniably touching.

Massive credit should also go to lead actor Ryan Gosling, who has been constantly impressing me even in mediocre films like Fracture. It takes a certain kind of thoughtful actor to see a role like Lars and not ham it up for the folks in the cheap seats. Lars is obviously a bit crazy (we learn in the film that his fear of human contact is the byproduct of years spent alone caring for his depressed and dying father), but Gosling lets that fragility bubble under the surface instead of playing him bug eyed and wacked out.

Take a scene like the office holiday party, where Lars first brings his new "girlfriend" out in public. Gosling's performance in these few minutes is incredible as he walks the line between Lars fully believing his own ruse and knowing that some of the people around him may not. As the people at the party, and subsequently the community itself, begin to accept and adapt to this strange situation, Lars' relationships with the people he once tried to resist become infused with the kind of love he had been unable to accept.

The strangest thing about my reaction to Lars and the Real Girl was how long it took me to put my guard down and admit to myself, "This is really fucking good." I can't really explain it; perhaps it's the subject matter or the preconceived notion I had about a movie with this kind of premise.

I don't really agree with a few of the reviews at that call this movie "Hilarious." There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but I think the more impressive and powerful thing about this movie is its ability to make you -- hell, to make my uncle -- care about a character who could have been so much more pathetic and unlikeable in the hands of lesser people.

For more on Lars and the Real Girl:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database, and also at Wikipedia
- A pretty insanely detailed official movie site
- Buy Lars and the Real Girl at Amazon

Official movie trailer:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

365 Films, #2: For All Mankind


First released Nov. 1, 1989
Directed by Al Reinert

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to travel into space. Not just in that childlike sci-fi imaginary way, where you're out there with laser guns, battling aliens and asteroids. I wanted to be an astronaut. The kind of supernerd who gets to be the one person in billions chosen to exit the planet and see what's out there beyond our atmosphere.

When my family would go to the beach when I was younger (hell, even every once in a while in my later years) I would sometimes sit in the ocean water and slowly drift out, past where the waves broke, into what I basically saw as "shark territory." You could no longer feel the sand beneath your feet, and you had no idea what was going on below. This was on the East Coast, where the water isn't the crisp, clear blue hue that it is in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the country.

I would keep drifting out, always aware and somewhat frightened about the possible depths below me (Jaws fucked me up pretty bad, and I've feared deep water ever since seeing it as a kid), and note my placement in relation to all the swimmers around me. Eventually, I would notice that I was further out than anyone else, and this thought always pleased me. I was the furthest away from my country, from humanity, as anyone out there that day. In a way, I was adrift.

I can't even comprehend the idea of being in space. Of standing on the moon and seeing the earth in the sky, as if your entire reality has flipped. For All Mankind is a mesmerizing attempt to articulate that feeling. Assembled from footage shot by NASA and its astronauts between December 1968 and November 1972, the time period when the U.S. sent 9 manned flights to the moon, Mankind blurs the footage into a singular experience. Rather than give a listing of trivia and statistics that you could find in a dozen other space documentaries, the movie focuses more on the emotional voyage as seen and narrated by astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and a handful of other legends.

I know the magic of the idea of reaching the moon has been lost to the repetition of history at this point, but if you can insert yourself into the shoes of the people living in that era, it's still pretty amazing. John F. Kennedy opens the movie with his inspiring speech about America's need to reach the moon ("We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard"), a speech so visionary, so seemingly impossible that he even mentions the fact that this kind of journey is going to take the invention of metals that man hadn't yet created. The craziest thing about that speech is that it was given mere weeks after man's first foray into space. These guys just came up with the recipe and Kennedy is demanding the icing on top!

Reinert does an incredible job of sifting through thousands of hours of NASA footage and creating a linear recreation of a trip to the moon. True, some nerds might be put off by seeing footage from Apollo 11 over "narration" from an astronaut not on that journey. But really, as far as recreating the intensity, the surreality, and the awe-inspiring vision of such a trip, Reinert nails it.

Reinert gets some assistance from Brian Eno's stirring ambient soundtrack, which evokes the otherwordliness, serenity and mystery of space. Just the use of "An Ending (Ascent)" in particular parts of the film is breathtaking. While Eno recorded the soundtrack (the gorgeous Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks) for release in 1983, the film was delayed for years after. Because of that, the movie features a number of Eno tracks from alternate albums, along with tracks from Buck Owens, Frank Sinatra and Merle Haggard. The use of Owens and Haggard is especially cool as the soundtrack to scenes where the astronauts have a little fun in zero gravity.

I've always been a big fan of movies like Baraka, full of imagery and sounds from places that I feel like I'll never get to see in "real life." For All Mankind is pretty much the ultimate version of that idea: it's a hypnotic, gorgeous postcard from a land almost no one in our generation will ever get to see for themselves. It's almost heartbreaking when you think about it.

After watching For All Mankind (this was the Criterion edition) I immediately started a second viewing, listening to a truly informative commentary track by director Al Reinert and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. Cernan's attemps to describe the sensation of not only travelling through space but through time (several times he references the sensation of travelling 30,000 miles an hour and seeing the sun rise and set over continents) is mindboggling.

Watch this movie late at night, with the lights out, on a gigantic television.

For more on For All Mankind:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- Buy Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks from
- Buy For All Mankind at Amazon

365 Films in 365 Days (v.1: "Champion")


Directed by Joe Eckardt

I've been a fan of actor Danny Trejo for years. While he typically gets minor roles (especially early in his career) playing thugs, bikers, or a combination of the two, he typically steals whatever scenes he's given. If you don't know who Danny Trejo is, you've probably seen him in a ton of movies. . . Heat, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, Con Air, The Devil's Rejects, Six Days Seven Nights, Bubble Boy and a SHITLOAD of others.

Now, if you think a couple of those movies are dogshit, you haven't seen the near hundred movies I left off of it. Dude's made a lot of straight-to-video movies, but that doesn't matter. He's still good, even in the bad ones. It's not hard to imagine why Trejo never became a leading man: he's tattooed like a human canvas, his face looks like a map of the surface of the moon, and he's intimidating as a ticking bomb.

Until I discovered Champion when madly scrolling through Netflix before starting this 365 Movies in 365 Days insanity, I never realized that Danny Trejo doesn't just look like a bad motherfucker; he IS a bad motherfucker with a criminal, turbulent past.

Asked at the beginning of the documentary of his life for an early fond memory from his childhood, Trejo thinks for a moment and then laughs, saying "I can't really remember a happy time."

Trejo tells of smoking pot with his uncle Gilbert, whom he idolized, at age 8. His first arrest came at age 10. By age 12, again because of his uncle, he begins abusing heroin, a drug he continues to abuse because, "for the first time in my life, I wasn't feeling anything." Soon, he was helping his uncle sell heroin, following behind him with a mouthful of balloons.

Trejo recalls at one point robbing a liquor store at age 13. USING A HAND GRENADE. Have you ever heard of anyone getting tried for two counts of Mayhem? That term boils down to meaning "scarring or disfiguring someone," and Trejo did it. Twice.

Trejo's final arrest came in 1985, and he did 5 years for dealing heroin to a Federal agent. During that stint in jail, he spent almost 4 months in solitary confinement. It was during this time that he turned to god and completely changed his life around. He dedicated his life to helping others, and upon release from jail, immediately joined Alcoholics Anonymous (he went to meetings with Dennis Hopper) and became a suicide and drug counselor.

Champion is like sitting next to someone at a bar who seems perfectly friendly, and then learning that this friendly person. . . I don't know. . .has done time for MAYHEM. The movie itself isn't exceptionally well made. Obviously on a limited budget, it's essentially just Trejo talking in a variety of settings, including a return visit to Trejo's cell in San Quentin (in one of the film's most affecting scenes, Trejo becomes visibly upset and nervous sitting in his old cell, probably appreciating his freedom and the change in his life more than he could have imagined).

While Trejo's resume is piled high with movie rolls, the doc features only a few clips from one of the Spy Kids movies. It would seem that using some of Trejo's more dark film roles might help illuminate the point you are trying to make about him being a badass, rather than showing clips from a family movie while your subject says things like, "It's hard to listen to your mom when you're doing robberies" or, on giving advice on how to survive in San Quentin prison, "Grab somebody by the neck and bite 'em. All the sudden, they want to leave you alone." Another classic quote comes as Trejo is trying to describe how one must become the darkest, scariest version of himself in jail. "You have to turn that fear into madness," he says. Then, he briefly imitates someone failing at this, saying politely, "Excuse me, are you Mad Doggin' me?"

While Champion is no feat of film making, it is a surprisingly uplifting and fascinating story. Check out the brief bonus scenes for a humorous bit where Val Kilmer tries to pretend he's being interviewed for the documentary in order to get his children back from a hostage situation with Trejo.

For more on Champion:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- The official movie site.
- Champion on MySpace
- Buy it at