One From Noah Baumbach: ‘Margot at the Wedding’

Margot at the Wedding poster

Noah Baumbach must have had one messed up childhood. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” which chronicled a divorce filled with animosity and the of effect it ended up having on the kids. In 2007 he gave us “Margot at the Wedding,” which focuses on two sisters who do their best not to explode at one another. This is sibling rivalry at its most vicious and with sly attacks throughout until the inevitable showdown where the wounds and scars reveal themselves in all of their hurt and anger. Once in a while, you will get a movie which shows the loving power of a family and how they all come together as one. This is not that movie.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, who is heading into the country to attend her sister’s wedding. With her on this trip is her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) who she dotes on with increased restlessness. 2007 was a tough year for Kidman as the films she starred in, be it “The Invasion” or “The Golden Compass,” were not at as successful as they were expected to be. She was at one point the most underrated actress in movies with unsung performances in movies like “To Die For” which she was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination for. Following her Oscar win for her role in “The Hours,” she looked to be stumbling in movies underserving of her talent. Her performance as Margot, however, reminds you of just how brilliant and fearless an actress she can when given the right role.

Margot is a bitch with a capital B, and she is one of the most unsympathetic and spiteful characters you would ever want to see in this or any other motion picture. She is cruel to those who love and hate her, and she even reacts coldly at times to her son by saying something about his appearance which could not be any less true. Kidman tears into the role with gusto, and she never tries to sweeten this character up and make her more likable than she ever could have appeared in the script. She is fearless in her portrayal of Margot, and she even lets us see beneath the character’s cruel mask to reveal the pain her character feels inside. You never completely sympathize with her, but you do come to pity her.

Margot’s sister Pauline is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the former Mrs. Noah Baumbach, and it is great to see her here. Her portrayal of Pauline makes the character pitiful in a whole other way. While Margot is cold to those around her, Pauline is much more vulnerable and is skillful in the way she throws her sister’s carefully placed insults right back at her. Pauline seems to be striving for a happiness which is just out of her reach. Leigh works at keeping her cool around Kidman’s character, but you can see through her eyes that the last time these two sisters met, it resulted in a brutal confrontation which kept them apart for years. It takes a great actor to make you see things about their characters without having to tell you what they are.

Pauline is about to get married to an unemployed musician/painter named Malcolm, and he is played by Jack Black. This is Black at his most unglamorous as he portrays Malcolm as a sad sack of a man who never looks all that happy about the fact he is about to get married. His character is utterly depressed and lost about what he wants out of life. There are times where Black falls back into those mannerisms we know him best for, and they do take away from his performance at times. But for the most part, he is really good here as he is cast against type in a more dramatic role.

In many ways, this movie is a prolonged attack leading to an explosion of emotion which we can tell has been repressed for far too long. How long you ask? Years, maybe even decades. You know the first time these two sisters meet each other that there is still bad blood between them which is eventually going to spill over. They say they are no longer mad at each other, but we know this is not true. Tension fills the air as these two test one another’s patience, and they continually betray each other in their own subtle ways.

“Margot At the Wedding” is not quite as effective as “The Squid and The Whale,” and it is easy to judge the two in comparison because they deal with the same thematic elements. They deal with broken families, divorce, parental neglect, underlying feelings of anger and resentment, etc. It has been said the best directors make the same movie over and over again, be it Hitchcock or Spielberg or anyone else. Baumbach’s specialty is in the dysfunctional relationships which he was exposed to when he was young.

Either way, you will most likely come out of this movie thanking god your family relationships are nowhere as bad as they are portrayed in this movie. You think you have it bad? Wait until you watch this.

* * * out of * * * *

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

‘We Own The Night’ Has Surprises Up Its Sleeve

We Own The Night movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

We Own The Night” was written and directed by James Gray, and this is the first movie of his I have seen. His previous movies include “The Yards” and “Little Odessa,” and looking at the cast and stories behind those two makes me believe he is more drawn to character driven works. Those kinds of movies threaten to be a dying breed in cinema today, and it is nice to see there are some who are determined to see them still make it to the silver screen even as Hollywood is more obsessed about the latest franchise or blockbuster at their disposal.

From the outside, this movie looks like another Cain and Abel story with two brothers on opposite sides of the law. There is Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), an officer of the New York police department who, as the movie begins, is getting a promotion. He is clearly following in his father’s (Robert Duvall) footsteps, as he is also a cop. Then you have Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) who is also a Grusinsky, but he keeps his mother’s maiden name for his own business ventures. Bobby runs a nightclub which is owned by the Russian mafia, and he revels in the partying and drugs which come along with it. He also has a girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), who dotes on him endlessly.

So, the movie starts off as a story where it looks like one of the brothers is going to kill the other one, and I think this is what kept me from rushing out to see it when it arrived in theaters. From what I had seen in the advertisements, it looked like a story I had already seen far too many times before. I was afraid it was going to be “Backdraft” but with cops instead of firemen. But as the movie went on, it took a number of left turns that broke through all the clichés which threatened to stand in its way. Just when you think you know where things are going, it goes in another direction and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.

Obviously, Gray has seen a lot of movies from this genre, and he is seriously intent on subverting the expectations of the audience throughout. Not to give anything away, but there is a serious event which occurs early on. Preceding that, Joseph leads a narcotics raid on Bobby’s nightclub which completely infuriates and embarrasses Bobby. They end up getting into a physical confrontation the next day and go their separate ways, but then that serious event happens, and it changes everything and everybody. The person it ends up changing the most is Bobby. He ends up putting his life on the line to right the wrongs which have been inflicted upon his family, and soon his job as a nightclub manager becomes almost completely irrelevant. From there, he moves over to the other side of the law. It’s like the scene where Hugo Weaving waves that sword in front of Viggo Mortensen’s face in “The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King” and says, “Become who you were born to be!”

This is a purely character driven movie which treads through very familiar waters of many other movies of this genre. At the same time, everything felt fresh and involving to me. A lot of this is due not just to the writing and direction, but also the actors. Joaquin Phoenix has long since escaped the shadow of his famous brother River (he is still missed), and he continues to give one great performance after another. From “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line” to this, he opens himself up completely on an emotional level which makes him all the braver as an actor. He makes you sympathize with a character who starts off as selfish junkie only interested in his own needs and desires. As the movie goes on, he manages to convince you thoroughly of his desire to do good, and to right the wrongs of his sins.

Mark Wahlberg has also put in some strong performances over the past few years as well. He is a guy who has been on both sides of the law, and he managed to come out of the negative elements in one piece. This is a guy who brings his life experience to each role he plays, and he makes you almost completely forget he was Marky Mark and rocking out with the funky bunch years ago. These days, he is the go-to guy for these kinds of roles, and you never doubt his believability as either a good or bad guy.

Then there is Robert Duvall, and he is an actor who cannot seem to do any wrong, and he still never gives us any less than the best of what he has got. There is a moment in this movie where he reacts to an event which has befallen to one of his sons. His reaction to it is not one which can ever be easily faked. It looks from a distance like what he does is easy to do, but it is not. Trust me, you will know the moment when it comes up.

This movie has a number of very intense moments as Bobby goes deep into undercover work and puts his life on the line without even thinking about the consequences. There are action sequences near the end which prove to be very suspenseful and keep you on edge of your seat. There is also a car chase which, while it may not rank among the best ever, is very well done and expertly staged. Seriously, this motion picture was full of surprises throughout.

“We Own The Night” is not quite a great movie as it does tread familiar ground without adding much freshness to it, but it is very well-conceived to where there is no doubt the amount of thought and time Gray put into its making. It is also a movie which cannot be boiled down into one sentence as the story touches on many themes, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to any filmmaker these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Sicko’ Makes a Strong Case for Universal Health Care in America

Sicko movie poster

The important thing to keep in mind about “Sicko” is how it is not about those who do not have health insurance in this country. Michael Moore’s movie begins brilliantly with the stories of those who had no health insurance and were forced to pay obscenely high fees for surgical operations. It’s a brilliant beginning because it distinguishes itself from what the rest of the movie is really about: those of us who do have health insurance and how we still end up paying obscenely high fees for medical treatment.

The problem with the American health care system is that it is more of a business run by capitalists than anything else. The bottom line is those who run this industry seek to gain as big a profit as they can, and that’s even if many Americans end up filing for bankruptcy when they cannot pay their medical bills. Moore makes his case strong and clear as he interviews many people who have come to him with their horror stories of the health care industry, and there were literally thousands of them. What is especially horrific is how many stories reveal the many ways people get rejected for health insurance. The CEOs are on a mission to keep anyone away who could be a possible threat to their profit margin.

The movie’s second act deals with Moore going to different countries to see how their health care industries operate, figuratively speaking. The difference between them and America are actually quite frightening. Canada and England seem to have it over everyone else as they do not bill their patients when they come in or leave because they are under a government run system which provides them with universal health care. There is a cashier at one hospital, but instead of billing patients, he pays them for cab fare if they were financially inconvenienced in their method of getting over to the hospital.

My only issue with the second act of “Sicko” is Moore never really gets into the negatives these countries deal with in regards to health insurance. I refuse to believe everything is as rosy as it is presented here. My understanding is Canadians and the English don’t completely love their health care systems to the same degree. Then again, what scares me is that if Moore did include some of the negatives of these countries and put them together with the positives, America would still look pretty bad in comparison.

With Moore’s films, he does manipulate the audience but usually for good reason. He wants you to be mad at those who keep us from having universal health care because it would affect their profit margin. He wants you to be angry at politicians on either side of the political spectrum for being bought out by the health care industry. He aims to wake you up to the problems surrounding us and to do something about them. He may not be telling you everything, but this does not make him a liar.

The last half of “Sicko” focuses on some of the heroes who rushed to the rubble of the World Trade Center in September 11, 2001 to help those in need, and on the medical woes they inherited from working in the toxic environment which was left for them after the destruction of the twin towers. Because they were volunteers and not employed by city fire departments and police stations, they were not given the same medical consideration as those who were. Moore takes them to Cuba which is reputed to have one of the very best health care systems in the world. This, of course, got Moore into trouble with the American government which provided him with some free publicity he may or may not have been seeking.

The difference between the prices for medication in Cuba and America as presented in “Sicko” are ridiculous and embarrassing. You feel both the heartache and relief of these people as they come to discover a place where those in power are not at all quick to suck all the money of their wallets. Whereas our country rewards those who limit health care services, others reward those who actually help their patients. Why the hell isn’t America doing this?

You feel for the families who go through illnesses they never asked for and having to pay exorbitant amounts for their health care and go into bankruptcy in the process. The fact they are forced to sell their homes and move in with their children feels so very unfair, and you know people will be quicker to shame them instead of help them.

There’s no denying “Sicko” is a highly effective and utterly devastating documentary which you cannot help but have a strong reaction to. You may come out of this documentary thinking Moore is very anti-American. I don’t think he is and never have. In his own way, he is a patriotic American who cares enough about this country to point out its weaknesses for everyone to see so we can face them rather than avoid them. We need more people like Moore, those who ruffle the feathers of the conservative firebrands who want you to believe everything is alright. We need someone to shake things up from time to time, and he continues doing this even when you think his career will be ended sooner than we think. Just remember, what you resist, you empower.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ratatouille’ Awakens Your Taste Buds Like Few Movies Can

Ratatouille movie poster

Ratatouille” was written and directed by Brad Bird who also directed another Pixar movie, “The Incredibles,” which was one of the few movies made which actually lived up to its name. With this “Ratatouille,” we follow the story of Remy, a rat who ends up getting separated from his family and is washed away to where he ends up in Paris. The moment where he arrives and sees Paris is a truly brilliant scene of amazing imagery, and Pixar continues to outdo themselves in terms of this. The look of Paris is astonishing, and it had me wondering how the hell they managed to put this together. The wonder of movies still exists after all these years of cynical blockbusters, and I am ever so thankful for that!

Anyway, Remy ends up sneaking into a restaurant named after a famous cook, Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who has written a book entitled “Anybody Can Cook.” From there, he befriends a new employee named Linguini (voiced by Lou Ramano) who cannot cook to save his life. Through Linguini, Remy creates a system where he can make him cook the way he wants by pulling at his hair like he is a marionette while remaining hidden inside his hat.

Along the way, he infuriates the head chef of the restaurant who is busy selling off Gusteau’s name and likeness through frozen burritos which offers him the promise of becoming very wealthy. Linguini also meets Colette, the only female chef in the restaurant who makes it clear she is here to stay. All the other rats help Remy in a way which, if the restaurant patrons realized, would have had them running out of there at a relentless pace.

“Ratatouille” is filled with wonderful vocal characterizations which did not immediately have me thinking about the people who did them. At the time this movie was release, I was not familiar with either Patton Oswalt or Lou Romano who voiced Remy and Linguini. Both are very memorable characters who stand out among many others in animated movies. Remy himself is a genius creation who just might make you think twice about rat traps and poison. I am very tempted to go out right now and get a stuffed animal version of the character, and this is in large part thanks to Oswalt’s very enthusiastic performance.

For a while, I thought that Remy’s father Django was voiced by Jason Alexander. However, it turns out Brian Dennehy voiced this character, and he is wonderful in giving Django different layers and realizations to work with. The biggest surprise for me though was learning who voiced Colette Tatou, the restaurant’s only female chef – Janeane Garofalo. I didn’t even recognize Garofalo’s voice and thought it was Elizabeth Pena doing it with a very realistic French accent! Collette does look a bit like the character Pena voiced in “The Incredibles.” All the same, Garofalo does terrific work here, and it is so nice to see her doing something other than joking about her period.

The one voice I did recognize was Peter O’Toole’s who plays perhaps the harshest restaurant critic ever to walk the face of the earth, Anton Ego (a very symbolic name actually). His character becomes quite pivotal to the movie’s climax as the restaurant is forced to come up with a spectacular dish which will keep Mr. Ego from savaging the restaurant and its staff in a review.

Pixar continues their winning streak of great movies. Even if you were disappointed by “Cars” which really wasn’t bad, it was proof how even their weakest movies put so many other Hollywood movies to shame. They are to me what the Jim Henson’s Muppets were to me when I was a kid, creators of projects which appealed simultaneously to children and adults.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

’28 Weeks Later’ is a Shockingly Effective Sequel

28 Weeks Later movie poster

When I heard that they were making a sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” I couldn’t help but wonder why. How could you make a sequel to a movie like that without it being the same old thing? 20th Century Fox put together a company called Fox Atomic which specializes in horror movies and sequels to horror movies because god forbid the money stops there! They made “The Hills Have Eyes 2.” I thought “The Hills Have Eyes” remake was great, but I was not as excited about seeing the sequel because it had a different director who made some bad horror films.

Now they have released “28 Weeks Later.” That’s great, milk it as much as you want. No mercy or respect for the franchise. Then again, these were my thoughts before I actually watched the movie. It had the good luck of at least having Danny Boyle and Alex Garland on as executive producers, so I was assured this follow-up wouldn’t be of poor quality. Under the tense direction of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who previously directed “Intacto,” “28 Weeks Later” adds itself to the list of sequels which equal the original in terms of vision and sheer terror, and it ends up delivering what it promises; an extremely intense and unsettling movie going experience.

All the main characters from “28 Days Later” are absent here, so we have a whole new cast of characters trying to stay alive while stranded in a part of the world engulfed by the rage virus. It starts off with a group of English people who have managed to find refuge in a home where they hide from the infected. The main characters are a married couple played by Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormick who are seen preparing dinner when the movie begins. Most of the actors here are not too familiar to audiences, and this helps the movie in its approach. Carlyle will definitely be familiar to those who remember him from “Trainspotting” and “The Full Monty,” and each of those movies show off how much of a range he has as an actor.

The opening of “28 Weeks Later” has a supreme amount of tension that never lets up. I got to see it at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and I sat in the back with my hands over my ears because I was eagerly anticipating all hell breaking loose as soon as the movie started. I typically watch most horror movies like this because it’s not what I see that gets to me, it’s the sound. Look no further than the original “Halloween” for an example of this.

The opening is brilliantly shot because you feel like you are right there with these people inside the house. You don’t see the outside world until they do, and it ain’t pleasant. When the infected make their inevitable entrance, Carlyle’s character ends up abandoning his wife who screams at him from a window in disbelief. He runs away from the infected at warp speed, and the fact he escapes with his life is both astonishing and shameful.

The story then moves to London after the outbreak with things finally returning to normal. The United States Army has taken over, and the first of the survivors are now coming back into the safe zone to start their lives over in a land now free of infection. We get to meet the children of Carlyle’s and McCormick’s characters who are played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. Carlyle’s character is, of course, unprepared to tell his children how their mother perished among the infected, and he lies to them about what happened. As much as you despise him, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Don’t you hate that?

Anyway, his lie about their mother being killed gets exposed when she is found alive in a closed off area of England. She has been bitten by the infected, but somehow has not been overtaken by the rage virus. Her blood seems to have some sort of immunity from the virus which keeps her from going completely psychotic. It is incredibly tragic that husband doesn’t have the good sense to keep himself from kissing her. A kiss is just a kiss? Not in this movie!

As you can expect, all hell breaks loose, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. The military tries to control the situation and they end up resorting to, when nothing else works, code red as they quickly see there’s no stopping the spread of infection. They can’t tell the difference between who is human and who is infected, so they resort to killing everyone to keep the situation contained. What makes this scenario so terrifying is how realistic is presented here, and the depressing solution the military takes to contain this horrifying situation is painfully understandable as it threatens the rest of the world. So, those young kids now have to find their way out of the “safe zone” and run away from those who have no choice but to bite and infect them.

There is a lot of shaky handheld camera work in “28 Weeks Later” which gives the movie an immediacy which sucks you in just like the original did. I have been back and forth in regards to hand held camerawork because it can veer easily from being exciting to the becoming relentlessly annoying. Don’t even get me started on the later movies of Woody Allen. I can’t even begin to tell you how nauseous I got while watching “Deconstructing Harry” on the big screen.

But here, the shaky camerawork is perfect as it brings us right into the chaos these characters are feverishly trying to escape. The camera goes all over the place to where we can’t tell where the exit is or if we can trust the person next to us. Fresnadillo is excellent in drawing you into the mindset of the chaos and confusion of what the characters are forced to experience. What if you can’t find your way out? What if the person next to you is infected? Where is the safest place to go? Everyone is running for dear life, but in which direction does one head?

What also makes “28 Weeks Later” work is it’s not just based on thrills and chills as there is an intelligence at work here. There’s a subtle critique of the seemingly endless occupation of military forces in other countries as they futilely try to control a situation completely beyond anyone’s control.

Aside from those kid actors who are terrific and very down to earth, there are a few others worth mentioning. Jeremy Renner plays Doyle, a military shooter who quickly develops a conscience when he decides not to follow orders and instead save a little boy who doesn’t deserve to die. I also want to mention Rose Byrne who plays Army doctor, Scarlet. I like it when a movie where there is a very strong female character who thinks she has found the key to eradicating infection. Of course, no one listens to her because the quick fix-it answer is to kill the host and everyone else if it comes into contact with. Byrne is very believable as a soldier who has no choice but to hold it together when the world around her quickly crumbles.

“28 Weeks Later” is an incredibly tense ride from start to finish, and it never lets up. There’s an unnerving sequence where the main characters have to flee from a chemical attack by going into the underground subway which is pitch black, and the only way they can make their way through is with night vision. This proves to be one of the scariest scenes I have seen in a motion picture in the longest time.

Whereas “28 Days Later” found a measure of hope at its conclusion, “28 Weeks Later” is unrelentingly bleak. Any hope is vanquished by the end, and its last shot features a famous landmark which shows how inevitable it is infection will spread from country to country. This sequel proves to be very respectful of its predecessor, and it goes even further into the nightmare the world is caught up in and beyond everybody’s control. It makes me eager to see “28 Months Later” which I hope will at some point in the future become a reality. But personally, I am waiting for “28 Millennium Later.” The way things are going right now, humanity is doomed in one way or another.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Encounters at the End of the World’ Takes Werner Herzog to Antarctica

Encounters at the End of the World poster

As a movie buff, I have to admit it is shameful on my part I have not seen more movies directed by Werner Herzog. I did see “Grizzly Man,” a brilliant documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his obsession with the grizzly bears, and like all brilliant documentaries made today, it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Thankfully, the Oscars did not ignore his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” which is an endlessly fascinating look at his travels and discoveries in Antarctica. It is at times an incredibly beautiful look at an icy landscape, at others a bleak look at the inevitable end of the human race. At the same time, it also a rather humorous and interesting look at the people who risk their lives by living there to study the cutting-edge world of science.

Herzog narrates “Encounters at the End of the World,” and he allows us to go inside his head on how he views the icy wilderness of Antarctica, and of how he views the people and wildlife there. He makes it clear from the onset that when he was asked by Discovery Films to do this documentary, he agreed to it on the condition he would not be forced to do a “fuzzy” movie with penguins in it (a little jab at “March of the Penguins”). The first 10 or so minutes deal with the McMurdo Research Station which is full of buildings and tractors constantly moving all over the place. Herzog finds himself wanting to get away from McMurdo right away as he feels it is corrupting the Antarctic island with the inhabitants’ own self-interests as it is filled with horrors there like “yoga classes.”

Eventually, he ventures out of the encampment and into the far-off research facilities removed from the town. We see him and others there being put through safety drills and emergency preparations to deal with the worst of circumstances. The group leader speaks of how the wind can get so bad to where you can’t see even your hand in front of your face or hear yourself talk. This lends a chilling effect to an already chilled environment, and while it is exciting to be there, you feel the danger of it throughout.

The best part of this documentary, and the reason I wanted to see it, is the underwater footage where you follow divers underneath the glaciers of Antarctica. The visuals on display here are both beautiful and extraordinary to see, and there is a unique beauty to the underwater landscape you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is all reminiscent of James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens from the Deep” in which he went with scientists in submersibles down to the bottom of the ocean to see what things live down there. But while Cameron’s documentary was fascinating, this one is not encumbered with 3D effects and of looks at where the future will take us. It deals with the world we exist in right now, and it doesn’t hide from how everything will disappear in the distant future.

I was also eager to find out how these scientists were able to dive down into waters which they would not be expected to stay alive in for more than 5 minutes. They wear special suits which are heavily insulated to protect them from the cold, and they wear gloves that threaten to make them look like aliens from another planet. Herzog says the water they are diving into is -2 degrees Celsius, and the divers go in with no ropes attached to their bodies as it will give them more room to move around. Still, this is very dangerous work they are doing, and if they get lost underneath the glacier, they will become a permanently frozen resident. You feel the danger of what they are doing, but you end up getting overwhelmed by the spectacular visuals they discover underneath it all.

Another fascinating moment comes when some scientists on the island play recordings of the sounds the local seals make underwater. The seals themselves steal some scenes from the human actors as they lie back lazily in the sun and look too tired to get up and acknowledge anybody. The underwater sounds of the seals seem so unreal, and I could not help but believe they were all computer generated. But they are indeed the real thing, and you experience the sounds along with Herzog and the scientists as they put their ears down to the ground and take it all in. It’s an amazing moment to witness.

The other thing I really loved was how it was just not another average science documentary filled with talking heads telling you all the things you need to know about the environments they are studying. There is science talk throughout the documentary which is fine, but Herzog also looks at the individual personalities he comes into contact with throughout his journey. Along with Herzog, you also wonder what could make all these people come to one of the most isolated places on the face of the earth and of how they stay there for so long.

Among the people Herzog meets throughout his travels are a philosopher who has a great quote at the end of the movie about how the universe is looking at itself through our eyes, and how we give life to everything in the way we view it. We meet one of the scuba divers who has a pensive moment where he takes in the fact he is about to making his very last dive into the icy depths. Then Herzog meets up with a Russian who had escaped the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the Russian almost loses it emotionally when he tries to describe to him how bad things were when he left. This Russian also has an escape plan at the ready with a big pack of supplies in case he needs to flee once again.

There are a couple of other people in the documentary who just talk and talk about themselves and the adventures they have been on. Herzog cuts them off in his narration by saying, “To make a long story short…”

“Encounters at the End of the World” does have a bleak view of humanity’s future, and the scientists are fully aware of this as temperatures continue to rise to where it is inevitable that ice will eventually melt completely in the future. This is also shown as we see a group of scientists watching “Them,” a 1950’s B-movie about radioactive ants which have grown to an enormous size. It turns out to be one of the many apocalyptic movies they show to each other from week to week. I wonder if they have ever gotten around to watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

At the center of “Encounters at the End of the World” is not just Antarctica, but Herzog himself. His narration throughout could have been annoying, but it serves to illuminate what a funny and interesting person he is. Clearly, he is attracted to madness in various forms throughout the world as is shown here and also in “Grizzly Man.” I imagine this is a big theme in all of his movies. We discover all there is to see through his eyes, and of how he views the beauty of the ice and how it forms. As a result, it does make me want to see more of his movies.

Just remember what one of the men says in this documentary, and remember it always:

“Global warming is real.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Diary of the Dead’ Has Romero Taking Aim at the Internet Generation

Diary of the Dead movie poster

I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.

This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.

The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?

“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.

The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.

Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).

While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.

What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.

Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.

If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.

The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.

One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.

I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.

Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.

* * * ½ out of * * * *