Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Movies of the Dead

Thankfully, I watched better movies this time! Mostly.

Taken: Since its popularity as an Internet meme has risen with the impending Taken 2: The Takening, I wanted to check out the original movie where Liam Neeson declares that he doesn't know who I am, but he will find me and he will kill me. Liam Neeson is a retired government agent with a "particular set of skills." These skills do not include being an awesome father or husband, as Famke Janssen has married some rich dude who literally gives Maggie Grace a PONY for her seventeenth birthday. He wants to be a good dad, though, and, to my surprise, the father/daughter story is so strong in the beginning that I wasn't nearly as antsy for her to be TAKEN as I expected. But, of course, then she is TAKEN, and Liam Neeson has to kill a bunch of people to get her back. That is basically the movie, but, hoo boy, it is an action-packed thrill ride, as they say. Plus, Neeson gives a great performance, selling both the "estranged father" and "relentless killing machine" aspects of his character. I loved watching him investigate, I loved watching him track down the baddies, I loved watching him evade the state department (who aren't really pleased with all the mayhem he causes), I loved watching him get his monomaniacal revenge on. He is incredibly focused, and he does come across as an asshole at times, but mostly it's just fun watching Liam Neeson be totally badass. B+

The Raid: Redemption: The cult foreign action flick of the summer! All the way from Indonesia comes this insane bloodbath about a team of cops who go into a tenement to capture a ruthless drug lord. There's just one major problem: the building is almost entirely populated with criminals proficient in the martial art of pencak silat. Our Hero is Rama, who has a kid on the way so we want him to live. Also, to complicate things, he knows someone in that building. Intrigue! There is a plot regarding those two characters and police corruption and whatnot, but, really, what you're here for is fighting. LOTS AND LOTS OF FIGHTING. Rama and Co. face off against such fearsome foes as Carrying Bowo Fighter #18, Hole Drop Attacker #7, and AK-47 Attacker #3. The violence is goddamn brutal, with epic machine gun volleys and incredible blade kills. Sometimes it was hard to follow what was going on because it was so fast, but it wasn't that a shaky camera was moving too fast or the editing was too choppy, it was that the people themselves were moving so fucking quickly. Pencak silat seems to involve a lot of waving arms and screaming, which makes it kind of terrifying but also rather beautiful, like a dance where you die at the end. I will admit that the hype led me to believe that the action would just BLOW MY GODDAMN MIND, so I was expecting a little more innovation and creativity than I got, but there are still plenty of awesomely badass moments throughout the mayhem. As a bonus, the American release features a great score by Mike Shinoda and Joe Trapanese. B+

The Debt: In 1965, three Mossad agents were sent to East Berlin on a mission kidnap a Nazi war criminal and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. Thirty years later, the daughter of two of the agents publishes a book about their heroism, and their past comes back to haunt them. Most of the movie is an extended flashback to that mission, which is full of exciting, thrilling spyjinks and a love triangle that's actually subtle and interesting rather than annoying. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (of Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class fame) and Peter Straughan's screenplay uses the non-linear structure well, getting tension from telling stories in two time periods with the same characters as well as by actually showing us a significant event on the mission that we then anticipate for the rest of the movie. Director John Madden (of Shakespeare in Love fame) keeps the action action-y and the drama dramatic. Thomas Newman's score is great. All in all, it's a very well made, well executed movie that touches on some of my favorite themes, but I can't tell you what themes because that would be a spoiler. B+/A-

Detention: This year saw the release of two meta/self-aware horror-comedies. One was The Cabin in the Woods, which was fucking awesome and blew audiences away. The other was Detention. Like Cabin in the Woods, it is a movie best watched knowing as little as possible. The adjective generally thrown around to describe it as "genre-bending," and it is generally accurate for certain definitions of "genre." On a basic level, it is the story of Riley, a cynical, suicidal loser, who pines for Clapton Davis (played by Josh Hutcherson, a.k.a. Peeta) while being terrorized by slasher Cinderhella, of Cinderhella II fame. But writer/director Joseph Kahn dresses the story up with slick onscreen text, meta-horror references á la Scream, and loads of '90s references. Every character gets a bizarre backstory. He just keeps throwing more and more WTF at the movie until it's a miracle that it doesn't collapse under sheer WTFage. Honestly, I have to give this movie points for sheer audacity. It doesn't quite gel, it's far too in love with itself, and it often substitutes references for cleverness—it is also genuinely clever at times: so many apparent throwaway lines turn to be plot points—but it's immensely fun to watch because you never know where the hell the movie is going to go next. I mean, in this one movie, you have a guy who spoilers a spoiler and becomes spoiler, two spoilers who spoiler spoilers, and, of all things, a spoiler-spoilering spoiler. B/B+

21 Jump Street: I never watched the show, and the trailers looked stupid, yet everyone I knew who saw this movie loved it, and it got great reviews, so I decided it was worth a free Redbox rental. Self, I approve of your decision. Jonah Hill, who was a loser nerd in high school, and Channing Tatum, who was a popular jock in high school, go undercover in high school to infiltrate a drug ring and find their roles reversed. The script deftly juggles fish-out-of-water humor, an action-packed cop plot, a cute romance, and the obligatory bromance. It's self-aware in all the right places, and it made me laugh out loud more than I would have expected. The cast is full of funny actors and most of the cast of the original show, although I only recognized the one. 21 Jump Street manages to walk the line between homage and satire, acknowledging the ridiculousness of the premise but still respecting its characters. There was a certain point during the movie where I realized that it was excelling in the rather tricky action-comedy genre. It's consistently funny and enjoyable, and I find myself anticipating the inevitable sequel. B+/A-

Safe House: Denzel Washington is Tobin Frost, traitor extraordinaire, an ex-CIA agent who's been selling secrets for years. Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a CIA agent who, um, is a good guy or something, there's really not much else to his character. Frost ends up in Weston's safe house, which turns out not to be so safe, and Weston and Frost have all sorts of adventures on the run from people who are trying to kill him/them. There are some decent action scenes here and there, but the movie is more boring than it ought to be, and it's hard to know what's going on (storywise and action-wise, sometimes), except for the really obvious plot twist that will be obvious to anyone who has ever seen, uh, a movie. It's a shame, because hidden underneath it all are the seeds of an interesting movie about the relationship between Frost and Weston and how Frost gets in his head, for better or for worse. B

Brick: In honor of Looper, I rewatched Rian Johnson's first collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his debut film that declared him a talent to be followed, and rightly so. Brick is high school noir, but in a more literal sense than Veronica Mars. It takes its cues from Dashiell Hammett and other classic hardboiled detective stories, with a dash of David Lynch. The dialogue is pulpy as hell, and the characters all have something to hide. Except maybe The Brain. Yes, he's only ever called The Brain: pulpy as hell, like I said. The movie begins with a dead girl lying facedown in the water, and we're immediately transported to a couple days before to begin to puzzle out who, why, and how she was killed. Brendan Frye, her ex-boyfriend, plays gumshoe and discovers she got mixed up in some nasty shit because, as Rob Thomas says: it's noir, baby. I have a growing appreciation for movies that just skip exposition and get moving right away, and Brick grabs you from the start and never lets go, immersing you in its weird, stylized world where 26 is "old" and where you eat lunch is relevant. Johnson seems to know that having teenagers act like characters in a 1940s noir flick is kind of silly, and there are some scenes where I think it's okay to have a small laugh at his expense. But for the most part, it's incredibly impressive how well it works. It's a movie dripping with style, but not in a distracting way. Special props to Nora Zehetner as Laura, the seductive girl who aids Brendan in his investigation and recites the sexiest rendition of "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze" I've ever heard. A-

Barton Fink: For years, my main association with this movie was a Simpsons reference, but then a friend kept mentioning it, so I figured that now that I was a playwright who had writer's block, it would be good to watch the Coen Brothers movie about a playwright with writer's block. The titular Barton Fink is an up-and-coming 1940s New York playwright who has the chance to work in pictures out in Hollywood. In order to stay in touch with the "common man," he stays in the run-down Hotel Earle. In Hollywood, he encounters many colorful characters: a friendly neighbor, a fawning studio executive, a famous writer and his secretary, among others. But in the end, he is all alone, in his room, trying to write a wrestling picture. Barton Fink is very engaging for the most part despite not having a strong plot, per se, but it started to lose me eventually. The third act seems to come out of nowhere, and although it promises excitement, it mostly left me confused as to what the point of it all was now. It's clearly a movie that has more going on below the surface, and apparently I would appreciate it more if I understood the symbolic wallpaper or whatever, but it didn't really speak to me. Maybe it spoke to Milhouse. B/B+

Whip It: Inspired by Seanan's sudden love affair with roller derby, I decided to check out Drew Barrymore's roller derby movie. Ellen Page lives in a podunk Texas town with her best friend Alia Shawkat (whaaaaat I did not know she was in this), and her mom, Marcia Gay-Harden, forces her to live the pageant life. But then one day she discovers the magic of roller derby and begins a secret roller derby career down in Austin, where she becomes a breakout star. If you know nothing about roller derby, don't worry, they explain the rules several times in the first half hour, and after that, it's pretty easy to follow along. It is, of course, depressingly rare for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, so when one passes it with flying colors like this one (gobs of female characters talking to each other, only sometimes about a man), I have to give it a gold star. It also gets a gold star for a mother-daughter relationship reminiscent of Emily and Lorelai Gilmore's, and I really appreciated how the movie ended up handling it. Whip It is a fun sports movie about finding something you're passionate about, something that makes you happy, and it works really nicely as a sports movie, complete with clichés. Everything doesn't work: the characters can be a little too broad and quirky at times, the romance is unnecessary (although the underwater scene was pretty hot), and some of the minor characters don't entirely justify their presence. But it's very entertaining and sweet, and you get to watch a bunch of women on skates beat each other up. B+

May: I don't remember how this movie ended up on my radar in the first place, but it moved up once I realized it starred Angela Bettis, who stole the movie in Drones, and it was edited by Rian Johnson. Bettis plays the titular May, a lonely woman with a lazy eye who has zero friends. Literally zero friends. Her only friend is a doll in a box. She tries her best to make some sort of connection with other people, like the hot guy (Jeremy Sisto) with the amazing hands or her hot co-worker (Anna Faris) with a beautiful neck. She is a bit of an awkward freak, though, so she's not really good with the whole "connecting with people" thing. It's only a matter of time before she snaps. The movie is billed as a horror movie, and the very first shot is of a bloody May screaming in a mirror. The last half hour is cleverly foreshadowed throughout the entire movie, and it is a pretty good payoff, but...that's pretty much all it is. It's a movie focused entirely on May and her story, and I give it credit for that, but it builds very slowly and, although it gets pretty fucked-up, I feel like there could have been more to the story. B/B+

Night of the Living Dead: It is finally time to watch Romero's Dead saga! I watched the first movie years ago but have never seen the rest. This classic zombie film never uses the word "zombie," actually, referring to the zombies as "those things" or "ghouls," and the zombies aren't after braaaaaaains, just flesh in general. But it does originate the familiar trope of a group of people holed up in a house, tensions rising as they fight off the zombie hordes. Our hero is Ben, played by Duane Jones, who is a good actor. Our heroine is Barbra, played by Judith O'Dea, who is not. Ben is awesome. Barbra is catatonic. However realistic her reaction may be, it is kind of annoying and not very compelling. What really works about this movie is the fact that it takes place in this one house with these people who don't know what is going on, yet the same thing is happening everywhere else, the authorities slowly catching on and trying to figure out what's going on. The narrow scope and focus makes it even more powerful than a movie where the characters are constantly running from place to place. They're trapped. I love how the zombie mythology is doled out bit by bit. It's an impressive feat of low-budget horror filmmaking that inspired a generation and a genre, so I can forgive the uneven acting, especially given that it has a hell of an ending. A-

Dawn of the Dead: It's always darkest right before the dawn. Unfortunately, the dawn still has zombies. Four people hole up in a shopping mall in this extremely gory satire of consumerism. Romero has quite a bit of fun with the idea; it's hard not to see a horde of zombies wanting to get into the mall and be reminded of Black Friday shoppers. I liked that Romero gave us another black hero, plus this time the heroine is not catatonic and actually holds her own (the actress refused to scream and demanded that her character fight back, which is awesome). Unfortunately, there isn't really a plot besides "don't die," which I suppose is the plot for most zombie movies (even Night of the Living Dead), but something felt almost...aimless about it. That may have been intentional, of course, given that the protagonists become almost zombified themselves when buy-buy-buy becomes take-take-take: it sure is incredibly satisfying to have all this stuff, right? Because the mall is a lot bigger than the house of the first movie, this movie doesn't have that same claustrophobia (and they're not trapped, they can leave anytime), and the zombies mostly just wander around and aren't a constant threat. So there isn't the unending tension of the first movie, and so my attention wavered at times. But there sure is a lot of blood and gore! We all love blood and gore! B/B+

Day of the Dead: Robert Kirkman cites this movie as his favorite in the saga and a major source of inspiration for The Walking Dead, and it shows. It's clearly an inspiration for a lot of modern zombie stories (even the controversial 28 Days Later). We've gone from a cabin in the woods and a shopping mall to an underground military bunker where soldiers round up zombies for scientists to experiment on them. They think there's a way to make them docile, for humans and zombies to coexist (by this point, humans are the minority, though). Maybe they remember their past lives (in the last movie, everyone sure remembered wanting to shop). What is the real difference between them and us? Besides the interesting scientific looks into zombie cognition, however, this movie truly focuses on the human conflict rather than the zombie conflict. The soldiers and scientists don't get along, and then there's a helicopter pilot and communications man who are living in a neutral zone. (And Romero continues his tradition of having two of his major characters be a blonde woman and a black man. Sarah is my favorite protagonist so far.) The movie remains incredibly compelling throughout, never boring, peppered with the occasional zombie attack to liven things up. But, really, the movie is about how society moves on after the zombies win, if there is a society at all. Also, there is a zombie clown. A-

The Thing (2011): In this prequel to a remake, we learn what happened to the Icelandic team who first discovered the alien creature. That is, we already know they all died, so now we get to watch them all die! Let's throw in some Americans too, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the Kurt Russell role. The movie puts some nice twists on the original and even expands on the already nightmarish design of the creature, which does look a little bit too CGI at points. I was continuously suspicious of everyone and often surprised by who the creature turned out to be replicating, even though I couldn't really track the point of infection most of the time (but I don't remember whether I could in the original anyway). In the end, it's not really necessary in the grand scheme of horror movies, but it's a solid outing. B+

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: Since the sequel was announced, I figured it was time I take a look at the original, as the various Internet memes it had generated made me think that it could be something I would enjoy. I had always assumed it was just a stupid LCD comedy, but I was proven wrong from the opening text, which reads, "The following is based on actual events. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed." Anchorman is not a stupid comedy but an incredibly silly comedy that takes the idea that San Diego local news is really, really important and runs with it to great comic effect. It's the 1970s, and it's a man's world...until Ron Burgundy gets a new co-worker: a WOMAN. Naturally, the entire news team tries to sleep with her, and ha ha chauvinism and all that. The cast is full of many popular comic actors, some only in small cameos, and the movie is funniest when it just goes off the deep end and embraces the zaniness (two scenes in particular had me in stitches). It's still a bit uneven, though, and the fact that Steve Carell's character is canonically mentally retarded made me a little uncomfortable laughing at his idiocy, even when it was pretty funny. The movie is self-assured, however, and even if it's a series of hits and misses, some of the hits are GOLD. B/B+

Land of the Dead: Like George Lucas, George Romero has an original trilogy and a new trilogy. The original three movies came out in 1968, 1978, and 1985. This one came out in 2005 (with the next two movies coming out after only two years each rather than once a decade). The new trilogy is significantly less well-regarded, but I really liked Romero with a budget! Better-looking zombies and explosions! In Land of the Dead, society—or at least Pittsburgh—has rebuilt itself somewhat, and its fallen into its old conflict between the Haves and the Have-Nots. The Haves live in the lavish Fiddler's Green, protected by the military and an electric fence, and the Have-Nots live in the slums. Simon Baker and John Leguizamo work for Dennis Hopper, but they want out, although in different ways: Baker wants to leave, and Leguizamo wants into Fiddler's Green. Time for some class warfare with zombies! Plus, in a really interesting subplot, Romero continues the "thinking" zombie idea introduced in Day of the Dead by actually following a zombie character as he organizes a posse. It's a cool look at post-zombie apocalypse society and an action-packed movie full of zombie mayhem. To be honest, I feel like it does compare favorably to the original trilogy, but I did give those movies bonus points for cultural influence. B+

Diary of the Dead: In a bizarre departure and an apparent attempt to remain socially relevant, Romero jumped on the found-footage fad and made a bad student film called The Death of Death chronicling the lives of some college students after the zombie apocalypse. It completely throws a wrench into the timeline of the Dead saga, as it ostensibly takes place at the same time as Night of the Living Dead, if Night of the Living Dead had taken place 40 years later. It does fall into the trap of most found-footage films in that it requires one character who must film everything with no regard for anyone else's safety, including his own. But no! This story must be told! If it's not on camera, it didn't happen! In some ways it's a found-footage film about how found-footage films are stupid, criticizing the obsession with being on video. And as a found-footage narrative, it's not that bad; it doesn't waste too much time being boring for the first half hour, and it remains pretty well paced. It has some good zombie deaths. The problem with the movie is that its head is so far up its own ass that you might as well shoot it in the butt. There's a British film professor whose every line is twice as overdramatic for being spoken with a British accent, and one character provides dull, cheesy narration over the edited footage. She's actually a decent character with personality, so the narration style seems to be intentionally bad, and I am left wondering how seriously I'm supposed to take this "film." A lot of it seems like a bad version of the Rising, like ooh, bloggers, the Internet, video, get the word out, don't believe the media. But it's just so goddamn blunt about the whole "ooh, filming" thing. It's the laziest form of social commentary Romero's done. B

Survival of the Dead: The least successful film of the series follows the zombie apocalypse as seen in Diary of the Dead, which it seems essentially rebooted the series. This movie is basically all about assholes being assholes, with a handful of likable people mixed in. Some asshole National Guardsmen who go around robbing people get in the middle of two feuding asshole Irish families, the O'Flynns, who want to kill the dead, and the Muldoons, who want to keep them "alive." It takes half the goddamn movie for the plot—such as it is—to actually start, though. Most of the movie is spinning wheels and killing zombies, and it has absolutely nothing interesting to say. Once we get to the island of the living dead, however, things get mildly more interesting. Mildly. There is just something completely off about this movie; it doesn't really feel like the classic Romero. The characters aren't engaging (what is the purpose of the random kid they pick up along the way?), the score is irritating and overdone, and it's all pretty silly. But I have to admit it does have a pretty awesome final shot. B-

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: After being pleasantly surprised by Anchorman, I took a chance on the next Will Ferrell/Adam McKay collaboration, which several people recommended. Ricky Bobby is a NASCAR driver who wins and wins and wins and makes lots of money and has a hot wife and two awful kids...and then a gay Frenchman arrives and ruins everything. While the movie does have a good cast, it doesn't have the oddball tone I enjoyed in Anchorman; in fact, it's actually played pretty straight. I could acknowledge many places where the movie was supposed to be funny, but the jokes just weren't hitting. In the movie's defense, I was really fucking tired. Occasionally, there was a good moment, but overall the movie feels overlong and dull. It tells a solid story, but it's not one I cared much about. B

Mysterious Skin: It has been a Joseph Gordon-Levitt kind of year, so I decided to check out this movie, which I'd heard good things about. I didn't know a damn thing about what it was about. Warning: it is about CHILD MOLESTATION. The movie focuses on two boys who are molested by their baseball coach. One of them, Brian, represses the whole thing and believes he was abducted by aliens. The other one, Neil—who grows up to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt—remembers it all, gets really fucked-up, and becomes a male prostitute. This movie is extremely uncomfortable to watch. Although you never actually see the stuff with the kids—the director filmed the child actors separately and never told them that the context of what they were doing, thank God—it's still incredibly oogy. And Neil's entire storyline basically consists of his encounters with johns, which can be rather graphic. Brian is completely obsessed with unlocking the mystery of what happened when he was a kid, and, bless his heart, we want him to find out as much as we really don't want him to find out. It's so common for "He was abused as a child" to simply be used as a third-act plot twist that it was interesting to see a movie actually focus on what that really means and show the consequences (they don't all turn into serial killers). Despite how uncomfortable the movie made me, it was still very engaging. Also, Michelle Trachtenberg is in this movie. B/B+

Coming up: lots of classics! Unless I keep pushing modern movies ahead of them in the queue.
Tags: making the grade, movies, real life friends, rob thomas
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