Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chicken Little / **1/2 (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:

Chicken Little: Zach Braff
Buck Cluck: Garry Marshall
Abby Mallard: Joan Cusack
Runt of the Litter: Steve Zahn
Foxy Loxy: Amy Sedaris
Mayor Turkey Lurkey: Don Knotts

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Ron Anderson. Running time: 82 min. Rated G.

As an actor, the sad fact is natural ability is a necessity for the craft from which the artist is formed. As a critic I have a great appreciation for the natural ability of successful actors and feel there is a lot more natural ability out there than many actors are willing to admit. But when that natural ability is not there, “acting” becomes a chore of stretching and mugging and overexertion that is usually more painful to the observer rather than the practitioner. Watching Disney’s first solo foray into the now CGI dominated market of animation Chicken Little, I was reminded of what it is like to watch someone who is not so naturally skilled in acting. They know what they are trying to achieve, but they go at it with too much gusto, too much willingness to please, yet not enough confidence to convince.

The movie picks up just as Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff of NBC’s Scrubs) is doing his infamous deed of claiming that the sky is falling. The town is in chaos thinking the world is coming to an end. Mayor Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts, Pleasantville) is proving his own name true. A mother rabbit provides one of the movie’s best sight gags as she pulls a train of twenty or so screaming baby rabbits out of a stroller before it is hit by a truck. But it appears that Chicken Little has mistaken a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. His reputation is ruined along with his father’s, a former high school sports hero named Buck Cluck (voiced by Garry Marshall, Orange County).

A year later Little has yet to live his reputation as the town crazy down. His only friends are other misfits, like the ugly duckling Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack, Toy Story 2) and the biggest little pig you’ve ever seen Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn, Sahara). Little yearns for the former notoriety of his father, his father’s support and attention, and the popularity of the current high school sports star Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris, Strangers with Candy). Eventually Little achieves some positive notoriety, but when yet another piece of the sky falls upon his head, he fears it may all just crumble away as the sky itself appears to be.

Chicken Little is the first CGI animated feature Disney has produced in house, rather than through the Pixar Animation Studio, and it is obvious they are trying to make a noticeable break with that independent studio while trying desperately to live up to the high standards of quality that Pixar set for the industry. Chicken Little drops the realism Pixar has so far tried to achieve with their animation for a more cartoony look (a look Blue Sky (for Fox) and Dreamworks Animation have already dabbled in with their CGI features). I’m not sure I understand the point of CGI over traditional animation if you’re going for a cartoon look, but it does create a unique appearance that helps develop the feel of this particular barnyard animal universe.

Chicken Little is not an outright failure. It is filled with many wonderful moments and images and laughs. But it seems a bit unfocused, as if the writers had a bunch of sight gag ideas but couldn’t really figure out how to work them into the story of Chicken Little itself, which certainly never had anything to do with the main plotline provided here. I’m trying not to spoil what the whole sky falling thing is all about in this picture for those people who have never seen a preview or any promotional materials for this movie before, in other words – the deaf and blind. Although the explanation in itself seems a desperate excuse to come up with some sort of logic to the sky falling even though it really has nothing to do with the point of Chicken Little’s story.

The backgrounds are often filled with the film’s funniest moments, which would probably require multiple viewings to discover them all. There’s the bird trying to get into a store that just can’t help but run into the storefront window pane until he knocks himself unconscious. A penny distracts Mayor Turkey Lurkey at a key moment, but the punch line comes when he nonchalantly ducks back into the frame to pick it up. And the writers and director really miss an opportunity by neglecting to utilize one of the story’s most sparkling personalities in Foxy Loxy. An increase in her involvement could have opened many more possibilities in terms of where the plot could go. And she was funny, both looking and acting, as the town bully/snob/superstar.

While Chicken Little falls short of the plateaus Disney reached while employing Pixar, it is an indication that the studio is not entirely lost without them. Chicken Little is really not so grand a story as it is trying to be here, and any lessons it has to teach would be better served in a subtler, more toned down experience. Perhaps Disney’s computer generated animation division should take one of their own film’s lessons to heart and stop trying so hard to be what they think people want them to be (read Pixar) and relax into just being themselves.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know / *** (R)

Richard: John Hawkes
Christine: Miranda July
Peter: Miles Thompson
Robby: Brandon Ratcliff
Sylvie: Carlie Westerman
Michael: Hector Elias
Andrew: Brad Henke
Heather Natasha Slayton
Rebecca: Najarra Townsend
Nancy: Tracy Wright

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Miranda July. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for disturbing sexual content involving children and some language).

Have you ever felt like a character from one of those depressing slice of life independent dramas where everyone is so screwed up they could never hope to function in a happy Hollywood comedy of romance and sparkly enlightenment? Writer/director/ performance artist Miranda July certainly has, and her debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know is an expression of just how those depressing independent film characters can enjoy just piece of the happy life offered up by Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson performances.

Me and You… executes a strange sort of balancing act, teetering on the edge of one of those psychologically downgrading slice of life studies of human nature that make you feel most of the characters would be better off giving it all up, while somehow staying aloft as nearly a romantic comedy, where characters are actually capable of be both screwed up and happy. It is like a version of Todd Solondz’s film Happiness that is actually happy.

Like that indie favorite, Me and You…tells multiple stories with several character arcs centered on one family. Richard, played by Deadwood’s John Hawkes, has just ended his marriage, literally going down in flames. In a strange outcry, he lights his own hand aflame in front of his two boys, Peter (Miles Thompson, 13 Conversations About One Thing) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), as a ceremonial testament to the breakup of the family. Richard is a shoe salesman in the local mall and moves into an apartment complex with his boys in part time custody.

It is not long until Richard observes a customer at work who appears to have an outlook on life that matches the sensibilities of someone who would light his hand on fire to culminate the end of a relationship. Christine, portrayed by the film’s writer and director Miranda July (Jesus’ Son), is a driver for the elderly and a performance artist trying to get a gig at a local studio. She is not interested in the salesman so much as the honesty Richard seems willing to throw in about himself during his pitch, and soon the two are walking to their cars together living an entire lifelong relationship in the span of time it takes them to reach their parking spots.

Meanwhile Richard’s boys are experiencing all the internet has to offer, and in one of the film’s most humorous?… scary?… enlightening?… let’s just say effective scenes, the teen, Peter, teaches his little brother Robby, who is six, about internet chat rooms. After explaining how people like to pretend to be something they are not in these chat rooms, Robby quite innocently suggests a conversation subject that means something completely different to him than the sexual innuendo Peter understands it will be taken as in the chat room. As the film plays out the audience finds the character that encourages further input in this online conversation is someone who we are surprised to find involved in another portion of the plot.

Peter is getting his own sexual education from two girls, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), who have found themselves the objects of sexual obsession from an adult who is aware of the legal ramifications of cavorting with minors. This man happens to be Richard’s co-worker, Andrew (Brad Henke, North Country), and he finds a very clever way to fraternize with the girls without drawing undue attention to his solicitations. But Peter also finds a much more loving relationship with a neighbor girl named Sylvie (Carlie Westerman, A Cinderella Story), who has grand plans for her future.

Often times these ensemble pieces can be difficult as every life in them seems to be in such turmoil and upheaval, and this film is really no different on that front. Doom and heartache, depression and tragedy seem to knock at the door throughout, but somehow these characters seem to raise their own spirits above the cruelty of human existence. July imparts a unique outlook on that human existence in this film that I can’t say I’ve seen before, even in those indie ensemble flicks this one so often invokes. Her characters are all strange, but their quirks turn out to be positives rather than downfalls.

I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how good, or even great, this film is. This is one of those reviews where the critical constructs, like star ratings, make the discussion of a film more difficult. I personally wasn’t as affected by this movie as I expected to be, given the critical buzz surrounding its festival run and theatrical release; but I did enjoy it and cannot deny its originality. For people looking for a feel good indie effort, they may find the sense of dread that follows these characters around a distraction although none of the participants actually succumb to those darker leanings. For indie fans that have grown tired of the morbid tendency of these ensemble pieces to show just how terrible all of our lives actually are, they will find this a refreshing piece of original filmmaking from a woman who will most certainly be a major creative force in the independent film movement.

Another point I feel must be made about this film has to do with the explanation the MPAA gives for its “R” rating. “Rated R for disturbing sexual content involving children…” The “R” rating is earned and the reasoning behind it accurate, but what the word “disturbing” implies is dark and twisted which is something this picture delightfully avoids. Certainly I can think of many conservative public figures that will find the idea that children are even aware of sexuality a very disturbing thought; but the MPAA’s description leaves out the innocent nature in which these children explore their own particular, under-informed ideas of sex. The six year-old isn’t even actually talking about sex, it is only us perverted adults that see his ideas as sexual. And the teens are only trying to figure out this thing that has been presented to them as such an enigma that it can only be expected to pique their curiosity. The sexuality in this movie is more a statement on how adults view sex than some exploitation of the children involved, but the MPAA has always made it a point to confuse the issue of sex in ways that only encourage sex as a deviant activity rather than a normal one.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Last Days / **** (R)

Blake: Michael Pitt
Luke: Lukas HaasAsia: Asia Argento
Scott: Scott Green
Nicole: Nicole Vicius
Detective: Ricky Jay
Salesman: Thadeus A. ThomasRecord Executive: Kim Gordon

Fine Line Features and HBO Films present a film written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for language and some sexual content).

I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend after a day I was supposed to be in classes on that 5th of April in 1994. It was as rare a thing for me to be in a bar, in the afternoon or any time, as it was for me to be seen in my classes. I was there for the wings more so than the beer. My friend, who knew of my obsession with music, had even gotten me to provide a couple of album reviews for the student newspaper he edited, arrived with a somber look on his face. I inquired what was wrong, and he looked at me with emptiness in his eyes. “Kurt Cobain died,” he said. I didn’t say much. Not because I was so heartbroken, or because I was being my typical silent self, but because I wasn’t really sure what that even meant.

There was a time when the loss of a rock icon was a nation shaking event. Janis, Jimi, Mama Cass, Lennon, they all stood for something. When Cobain died, the world shook; but nobody was really sure why. He was the symbol of the grunge rock movement, but nobody ever really understood him the way people understood what those 60s icons were about. We only knew that we had lost an immense talent.

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days loosely depicts those mysterious final few days of a very thinly veiled Cobain type of rock musician. Actor Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) plays Blake and looks so shockingly like Cobain in this film that it is hard to believe at times that this is not some video document of Cobain’s own final days. Van Sant even places Blake in signature Cobain apparel; the wide striped shirt, the thrift shop cardigan, the alien eye sunglasses.

But Last Days is no mere idolatry of a rock icon. This film is the final part in Van Sant’s “death trilogy.” To be honest, I knew nothing of any sort of trilogy until the release of this third part. Van Sant, after a couple of studio films including the yawner Finding Forrester, decided to go back to his indie roots. The first was this trilogy’s opener Gerry, death from a friend. The second was his Golden Palm winner the haunting Columbine High School inspired Elephant, death from a stranger. And Last Days represents death from the self. I can’t speak for Gerry, as I have yet to see it, but Days follows the Elephant M.O. of offering no kind of comment or judgment upon the story it depicts. It is at its most and least a document of events and never anything else. We witness Blake wandering through the woods, mumbling incoherently. He makes himself a bowl of cereal and a bowl of macaroni and cheese during the course of the film. He spends a large portion of the story passed out. We see his entourage and their strange struggle to find something worth doing, or perhaps they do find what they are doing worthwhile.

This entourage, which includes characters portrayed by Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!) and Asia Argento (Land of the Dead), seem kind of like parasites that have attached themselves to the Pacific Northwest coast castle property of Blake’s more so than to the man himself. If there is any judgment given in the film it is with these characters in the way they pester Blake with their own personal wants and needs, like a plane ticket home, a bigger TV or proper heating for the house, as if their personal lives are his primary responsibility like he were their parent. Scott (Scott Green) warns Luke off such bothersome troubling of Blake while participating in it himself only moments beforehand. Perhaps they represent how many perceived what Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love to be.

But Blake’s eventual death does not really seem to be brought on by his “friends’” behavior so much despite the fact he tries to avoid much contact with them. There seems to be little concern from any of the characters about each other at all, including Blake’s own concern for what the others want from him. Without any real relations between them, it would be hard to conclude his feelings toward them had anything to do with his suicide.

Van Sant, while offering no forced explanations as to the reasons why Blake commits suicide, does still enjoy a good deal of emotional manipulation of his audience. With his obvious real life inspiration of Cobain is so easily recognizable, Van Sant expects his audience to know the outcome and plays with their perceptions of what is going on as such. He has Blake walking around for much of the film with a shot gun, the suicide weapon of Cobain. “When’s he gonna do it?” the audience must ask.

Van Sant also overlaps his timeline in much the same way he does in Elephant, so he can tell each characters’ story without interruption through key points in the plot. This allows him to reveal certain plot points in a way that will allow them to change our perception of what we have already seen and inform the story as a whole with stronger clarity in the end. Scott’s behavior toward Luke is one of the better illustrations of this effect. Scott seems to pick on Luke, who appears a bit slow, but as their true relationship is revealed so are the audience’s inaccurate assumptions, thus providing the audience with insight into itself as well as the characters.

I realize that many people will hate this film, which will seem to some as if it is just some incoherent idiot wandering around a castle in a dress with a bunch of stoned out occupants that have no concept of the real world and how it works. In that way the film is kind of a meditation on a lifestyle and further exemplifies how little we understood this musical genius. For a good portion of the film I thought that although it had my interest, maybe it was just some pretentious portrait of the typical tortured artist, but there is a point when Blake just sits there in his studio and performs a song for himself. The song, written and performed by Pitt, does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Cobain and the film. Suddenly, I relived my own personal joy of listening to Cobain’s music. I realized, as Van Sant must have as well, how important it was to remember the artist when looking at the man. I remembered how vital Cobain’s music was.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist / ** (R)

Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard
Father Francis: Gabriel Mann
Rachel: Clara Bellar
Sergeant-Major: Ralph Brown
Emekwi: Eddie Osei
Major Granville: Julian Wadham
Cheche: Billy Crawford

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Caleb Carr and William Wisher Jr. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for strong violence and disturbing images).

There is a craft to writing that gives it the illusion of magic. Many think good storytelling has to do with the inclusion of a great many details; but more important to creating magic with a story than what is put into it, is what is left out. Warner Bros. has desperately tried to franchise The Exorcist, one of their most successful -- both critically and commercially -- horror films, for over three decades. They have tried telling the stories of different principals of the original, both prior to and following the events of that first film; but save for The Exorcist III: Legion, which is the only to attempt to tell a very different story than the original, all their efforts have fallen short, and Legion did not do well commercially.

Their latest effort was their greatest fiasco, in which they tried to zoom in on the little information that was given about the Father Merrin character in the original movie. The first film states that this aged man who performs the exorcism has previously performed one in Africa in his youth during which a priest was killed. That little tid bit of information provides the audience with much to ponder about this no nonsense character who can tap into and combat an evil that no one else in the film seems to understand. Warners has now tried to tell Merrin’s story not once, but twice (that isn’t even counting the flashback sequences in Exorcist II: Heretic), and have failed on both occasions to tell a compelling story.

Last year’s release Exorcist: The Beginning and now Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist may well prove that the less said about Merrin’s past, the better. In fact, Warner Bros. knew this, but forced the two movies upon an unsuspecting public anyway. Disappointed with what director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) produced, Warner Bros. hired Finnish director Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight) to make an entirely new film. Re-casting many of the principal characters and hiring a new writer to produce a new shooting script from William Wisher (T2: Judgment Day) and Caleb Carr’s original. Harlin’s film was a critical and commercial disaster. So Warners decided maybe they should give Schrader’s version a shot in the market with a limited release in theaters at the beginning of the summer of 2005 and a higher profile DVD release. Well, although Schrader’s version looks like a masterpiece compared with Harlin’s, Warners should have just let the franchise slip quietly away after the beating it took from the first version.

Schrader’s version opens during the Nazi occupation of Poland where a young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, King Arthur) is forced by a German officer to make a terrible choice that will test his faith in God and himself until something as undeniable as coming face to face with the demon Pazuzu forces his hand back into the graces of God. His rediscovery of faith in both versions of this film are perhaps their weakest aspects.

Merrin tries to escape his memories of the war by taking a sabbatical from the church and pursuing his love of archeology to a site in North Africa where a Byzantine church has been discovered, apparently buried on purpose. The dig is under the supervision of the British Military, whose Major Granville (Julian Wadham, The English Patient) clashes with the local tribesmen. Merrin and the church representative, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann, The Bourne Supremacy), and the camp’s doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) take a charity case helping a cripple from the local tribe, Cheche (Billy Crawford, Everlasting Love). Eventually, Cheche is miraculously healed and Granville demonstrates an uncharacteristic aggressiveness toward the tribesmen.

Here’s the thing. It would be tempting to say this film was a worthwhile effort in the way it takes the demonic possession seriously rather than exploitatively as in Exorcist: The Beginning, but the truth is I nearly fell asleep during the first forty minutes of run time. Then it gets really good for the next forty minutes or so; but the last twenty minutes – the exorcism itself – while not as garish as the one in The Beginning, is nearly as ludicrous.

Schrader makes two major mistakes in his approach to this material. First, he does not play to his own strengths as an auteur. Leaving the screenplay in the hands of Wisher and Carr disregards his own keen attention to human nature he has demonstrated in his own screenplays from Taxi Driver to Affliction. While the character of Merrin here does fall in with Schrader’s typical flawed hero themes, Merrin is not really flawed in the dark ways most of Schrader’s heroes are. His dark secret was something he was forced into; and while Skarsgard is the perfect vessel to carry the weight of Merrin’s guilt, this clearly good man is not as compelling as the typical Schrader warped protagonist.

Second, Schrader does not seem to place any importance on the pedigree of this material. It is almost as if he purposely removed all references to the original Exorcist, save for the name Father Merrin. I’m not even sure the name of the demon Pazuzu is mentioned in the film, although it is easily found in the film’s press materials. But more importantly he seems to miss what made that original film so successful: the full involvement and detailed portrayal of the Catholic Church and its stance on demonic possession, and the everyday approach to the horror making it more palatable and frightening to the audience. Merrin never even notifies the church of the exorcism in this story claiming, “There is no time!” And the character of Cheche is never given the screen time to discern the difference between his real personality and that of the demon which possesses his body.

The Exorcist is a unique film that truly defies its genre, a dramatic horror film that works as both a frightening experience and an evocative one. The only other film in the series that works on the same dramatic level was the one that also came from the mind of The Exorcist’s original creator William Peter Blatty. Perhaps only Blatty himself can fully understand what elements are necessary to make this material work. Perhaps Warner Bros. should take their cue from Blatty himself and retire the material for good.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Amityville Horror / ** (R)

George Lutz: Ryan Reynolds
Kathy Lutz: Melissa George
Billy Lutz: Jesse James
Michael Lutz: Jimmy Bennett
Chelsea Lutz: Chloe Grace Moretz
Lisa: Rachel Nichols
Father Callaway: Philip Baker Hall

MGM and Dimension Films present a film directed by Andrew Douglas. Written by Scott Kosar. Based upon the novel by Jay Anson. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for violence, disturbing images, language, brief sexuality and drug use).

What is with all these horror remakes lately? It isn’t that they shouldn’t be made. But it is like they are being made by fans who never really understood what they were about. The original Amityville Horror told a tale that was “based on a true story,” but it also told a tale of shifting values in the family unit. As the seventies came to a close the free love of the sixties and the partying of the seventies was taking its toll on the family unit. There was a break down of family values going on in society as a whole and the story of the Amityville killings was a reflection of that. Now, The Amityville Horror has been remade after about twenty-five years since the original,plus numerous sequels and a television series. Through all that the point has been lost.

Before I go too far down the negativity road, however, I should give the film some credit for at least acknowledging the original film’s focus on family values, by going a little deeper into the family dynamic than that film. The Lutz’s are a broken family that is trying to reestablish itself as a whole. Kathy (Melissa George, 2003-04 season of Alias) has been through a divorce and carries with her three children, Billy, Michael and Chelsea. She recently re-married to George, who finds himself in the unenviable position as the replacement dad. The oldest, Billy, seems to be taking the transition to having a new father figure the hardest.

Ryan Reynolds, as George, continues his bid to become a legitimate movie actor, shaking off his TV sitcom days of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place for more serious action oriented fare such as Blade: Trinity and this high profile remake. He doesn’t do a bad job. He very good at getting that sticky situation of being the new dad across and his charm could very well win those kids over.

In an effort to start their life anew, the Lutz’s decide to buy a new house on Long Island. It will be a stretch for George’s contracting business to bring in enough funds; but the house, or rather mansion, is such a bargain they can’t turn it down. Of course, the reason it is such a bargain is because it was the sight of a grizzly murder. A young man killed his parents and siblings one night and then took his own life. In his journals he claimed the voices he heard in the house told him to do it.

Reynolds’ performance becomes even more dynamic as the house itself is soon possessing George. Some might consider Reynolds a sort of poor man’s Jim Carrey, but like Carrey he proves capable of carrying both the comedic and dramatic aspects of his role very well. His evil turn is just as dark as his lighter moments are relieving.

Reynolds, however, is just about the only thing this movie really gets right, and even that is not quite right when compared to James Brolin’s George Lutz in the original. Brolin’s Lutz is a darker character to begin with, so the changes in his personality once the house starts to take over are subtler. Reynolds’ Lutz has a total personality change that should be a much less forgivable shift for his family to witness. Now, Reynolds does just what the script requires of him, so the blame falls more on first time director Andrew Douglas and screenwriter Scott Kosar (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Douglas and Kosar seem to have caught on to the wave of J-horror, as they utilize a good deal of Japanese ghost horror flick techniques that are for the most part effective, however these creepy ghosts seem to draw the audience’s attention from the potential menace of the house itself.

The scariest scene in the original involves a priest, Father Callaway here (Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia), who goes to bless the house and is attacked by flies and told by the house itself to “Get out!” In that version the line is whispered. This time around the house screams it and the flies are such a quick assault on the priest that there is no time for the tension of the scene to grow. Kathy Lutz is also quite religious in the original, but in this one she only seems to find religion out of nowhere just so this signature scene could be inserted into the picture.

The new version places the story back into its original 1970s time period, making it a “period piece,” however there really is very little sense of these events happening in any time other than the present. Save a few wide collars and references to a couple of toys from that time that the kids play with, like Operation, the production design does little to transport its audience into the heart of the seventies. Again it seems as if they are trying to evoke the memory of the original film, but they don’t give it the proper substance.

While family morals are still a topical subject, this new version of Amityville, like too many of these horror remakes, is more interested in shocking its audience with baseless images than actually tackling the frightening moral issues families face today. And instead of following this idea of the family horror through to the end, as the original did so effectively when the recovered George realizes he has left the family dog behind in the basement, the area of the house where the evil seems to be the most concentrated; this new version gets sidetracked with an explanation of just how this particular property became a hot spot for evil. Needless to say the prolonged reasoning for this evil entity is a lame duck that has little to do with what has been presented to the audience up to the point of the film’s climax. The Amityville Horror certainly had the potential to be a worthwhile remake, but without enough reason on the writer and director’s parts for remaking it to begin with, this house collapses from its poorly structured foundation.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Land of the Dead / *** (UR)

Riley: Simon Baker
Cholo: John Leguizamo
Slack: Asia Argento
Charlie: Robert Joy
Kaufman: Dennis Hopper
Big Daddy: Eugene Clark

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by George Romero. Running time: 97 min. Unrated director’s cut (contains pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use).

Three and a half decades ago George Romero turned horror on its head with a nearly Z level zombie flick effort that became a cult hit in Night of the Living Dead. Since then a bevy of remakes, look alikes and not really sequels although they claim to be have followed in his footsteps of zombie related gore fests, but only twice before has he revisited his zombie universe himself. Unlike the copycats, Romero likes his zombies to make some sort of social commentary. His original Night was a banner bearer for the civil rights movement, Dawn of the Dead (the original 1978 version, not the 2004 remake), the best of the series, was a scathing indictment of the American mindset of materialism, while Day of the Dead merely reiterated Dawn’s sentiment with twice as much gore. Finally, Romero returns to his abominable creation with Land of the Dead. The message has changed once again, but so have many other aspects.

The story picks up after the world has been overrun by zombies and the last surviving humans have re-established lives of routine and productivity in a walled city, where societal structure has already delineated a class system with the rich living in luxury high rises while the working class once again struggle through the squalor of the streets. Corruption has re-rooted itself into the way of life, but keeping the living dead outside the walls is the utmost concern.

We are introduced to two zombie hunters. Riley is the Boy Scout type who has designed and built a special living dead arsenal on wheels called Dead Reckoning. Cholo is an opportunist who uses his skills as a zombie killer to run favors for the upper class tower dwellers in hopes to secure his own spot in the lap of luxury. Simon Baker is given a better opportunity to play the action hero here than he was earlier this year in The Ring Two. John Leguizamo (Assault on Precinct 13) takes yet another opportunity here to chew scenery in his own skillful way. Another scene muncher, Dennis Hopper (Speed), is also along for the ride as the financial and power hungry self-appointed ruler of the walled city Kaufman, and Romero gives him all the choicest lines. “In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” and, “Zombies, man. They creep me out.”

The real “scene chewers” however, are the zombies themselves. This will be quite an attraction to Dead fans to see that Romero has not gone squeamish in his old age, the gore percentage is up to his standards despite the more accomplished acting and higher production values. In fact, the dead themselves are one of the biggest changes and plot developments of the story. It appears that the dead have begun to evolve. They learn how to use weapons and actually look out for their own well being to a small degree. Everything in baby steps. One zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark, TV’s Tek War),in particular takes an aggressively proactive role in the fate of his fellow zombies as he leads an attack on the city itself. I don’t think it is entirely an accident that this lead zombie is African American, a reference back to the original Night, where a black man was the only person with the capacity to deal with the zombie situation rationally.

With the civil rights movement almost 40 years old and materialism turned to such a global scale that it has become a moot point, Romero has turned to more topical material. This time he focuses on less universal issues and takes aim at the current White House administration and the War in Iraq. First, the power and social structure of the walled city shows the corruption inherent in a government run as a capitalistic venture. Thugs, like the gambling underlord Chihuahua (Phil Fondacaro, The Polar Express) are utilized to keep the working class distracted from active involvement in bettering their situation and Hopper’s Kaufman is more interested in protecting his own investments than with the security of the people he so graciously rules. The zombies are also starting to develop their own quazi-culture that the living humans are making no effort to understand. Instead the humans are forcing their will upon the zombies who attack back in more of a revolutionary manner than in past Dead films. The human state of being has become based on fear without asking many questions, much like the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism.”

Unfortunately, Romero also falls victim to one of the illusions of the Bush administration, the illusion that action equals results. Romero takes the action-oriented introduction of Dawn and draws it through the entire feature of Land. As a result Land of the Dead plays much more like an action adventure flick than an issue-driven horror film. There is much more plot in this film than in previous films in the series, including the theft of Dead Reckoning. As Riley forms a team to track the war machine down, the focus is shifted away from Romero’s moral lessons.

Land of the Dead actually makes for a fairly involving action picture, so the drawbacks are not fatal. Romero has the skills as a storyteller and director to tell a compelling adventure, but Land lacks much of the resonating power of the first two Living Dead movies. Perhaps Romero is slowly becoming one of the living dead himself. Hopefully, he sticks around long enough to give us a resurrection.