Old Movie Review: Revenge of the Zombies

Zombies have been a scourge for untold eons, but as an untamed force—or a force only tamed in small quantities for the ends of the occasional witch doctor or mad scientists—they weren’t a serious threat. Not until George Romero popularized zombie-ism-as-a-contagious-disease in Night of the Living Dead did they become a global threat, and even then it was a non-directed threat. Zombies on that scale “just happen”.

After all, what possible force could be—what force would be—to try to harness the walking dead for their evil ends? Well, if you need to think about it, you might be on the wrong side. The answer, of course, is Nazis.

Nazis and zombies go together like peanut butter and sauerkraut. Maybe they’re not a good idea, but once you mix them, you’ll have the Devil’s own time separating them again. (This year we have the Norwegian movie Død snø, for example.)

Recently I had an opportunity to view the earliest example I know of the Nazi/Zombie blend, the 1943 film Revenge of the Zombies. This genre—mad scientist raising the dead—was already getting stale in ‘43, being the subject of Abbot and Costello and ultimately Bowery Boys films. And this is not a noteworthy representative, generally speaking.

John Carradine plays the mad scientist in question. (He also has a role in the ’70s Nazi/Zombie flick Shock Waves, surprisingly not as one of the zombies. And those are just the two N/Z John Carradine flicks I can think of off the top of my head.)

Gale Storm plays the secretary he’s got his eyes on before his wife isn’t even cold and walking above ground.

And that’s about it for big names.

What sets this movie apart from others of the genre is that it takes place in the bayou. Back then, of course, zombies and voodoo were still married. (If not for the presence of the German voice over the wireless, the Nazis would hardly be players in this show. But they’re needed for the extra menace factor.) But this movie is chock full of black people acting in ways black people aren’t supposed to act.

Which is pretty much the highlight of the movie. The white people walk around all serious and stodgy, while the blacks get to be interesting, ominous—wacky, sure, but really the only part of the movie that grabs you. Mantan Moreland, probably best known as Birmingham Brown in the ’40s Charlie Chan movies—also not a particularly PC series—is genuinely funny, no matter how minstrel-ly he may seem in modern times.

Anyway, this movie probably didn’t get aired much in recent decades as a result. I’m not sure why it suddenly became okay, but I’m sure it didn’t get play when I was a kid. (I would’ve seen it, guaranteed.) The director was a Hungarian who had made some good movies back home, but never quite got his mojo back in English, though he did ultimately direct the sci-fi icon Day of the Triffids.

This isn’t a movie you really recommend. You know from this description whether or not you want to see it, I’m sure. Semi-comically, I pulled this off the MGM “high definition” channel. The HD channels are kind of a joke. They charge you “merely” $5 for them, and then they’re full of non-HD programming, commercials (Universal HD, grumble) and the like. But MGMHD also has a lot of good movies, darnit. And interesting ones like this and It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

That movie, by the way, being the inspiration for Alien according to movie guru Ed Naha. I’ll report back once I’ve seen it.

Movie Review: Inglorius Basterds

The first thing to realize about any review I do of a Quentin Tarantino is that I’m not a Tarantino guy. The first QT movie I saw was Death Proof—and I was already in the theater for Planet Terror (“Grindhouse”). Then I saw Kill Bill. Wait, actually, I saw Sin City, and one of the segments in that he directed.

I avoided him for so long ‘cause of the hype. It gets hard to really take a film for what it is when the hype machine precedes it. (I’ve never seen a Spike Lee film, either.) But I’ve yet to be particularly impressed by him.

Still, Jason (the commenter) remarked on it as “beautiful” and gave it four out of five stars. And I love the comic-book premise: A group of largely Jewish soldiers strike terror in the heart of the Nazis by committing atrocities upon them.

Yeah, the movie isn’t really about that. Strike one against it there.

Is it beautiful? Yeah, actually: Something I’ve not noticed of his other films, but Basterds is blocked masterfully. A scene’s “blocking” is the positioning of the actors in the scene, and some of the shots looked like QT and cinematographer graduated from the James Wong Howe school with honors. You don’t get good blocking these days because directors do everything by jumping the camera. Anyway, visually, quite striking, though not quite up there with Coppola’s Tetro.

But I had time to think about what it is I find lacking in the QT movies I’ve seen. Yeah. Lots of time to think. Lots of things to think about. Like, why is it that I’m completely uninvolved in a scene where the brilliant Christoph Waltz is playing one of the most heinous villains to ever grace a movie and is about to commit an atrocity?

I had more time to think about that in a later scene in a bar, where the same situation arises. Something horrible is going to happen. Yet I just didn’t care.

I figured it out, sitting there: You know—or at least I know—almost exactly what’s going to happen when the scene is set up.

I guess, in the first scene, it wasn’t necessarily obvious. I can’t tell you exactly why I knew how the scene was going to play out. I’m really not good at seeing twists and turns in movies—but this wasn’t a twist. Everything had to play out more-or-less the way it played out.

But the bar scene? Well, look, Chekov said that if you showed the audience a gun in act one, that gun had better go off by act three. This scene was sort of like saying “Here’s the gun I’m going to use to shoot the bad guy in the head with in act three.” I mean, really, the character just come out and detail what’s going to happen. When it happens, it’s not just unsurprising, it’s mostly just a relief that the story can finally move on. (Sort of like the 20 minute discussion of Vanishing Point in Death Proof, only this at least has something to do with something.)

Now, one of the issues may be a rather spare use of music. In fact, these scenes didn’t have any, I don’t think. The music that is used so incredibly self-conscious—the movie opens with a kind of comical ’60s-’70s style war/caper movie theme, that is recapitulated at the end to a weirdly comic feel—that it can pull you out of the experience.

And the use of the Cat People song—I’m not making this up—has to be the worst and most awkward MTV-style music-video-in-a-film since Watchmen’s Hallelujah sex scene. It’s an otherwise beautiful scene, and it reminds me that a lot of modern film makers don’t really have a good grasp on the use of traditional music scores.

At least I think a traditional score would’ve worked better there, and throughout the movie. This was…jarring.

The word “jarring” applies to a lot of this movie, or even “self-conscious”. The second and third chapters, are interrupted by expository narration—just a sort of out-of-the-blue introduction to one of the Basterds, and a “hey, film is highly exploisve” bit. Also in the third chapter, there’s a cutaway to a short shot of Goebbels having sex with his assistant, which is the first (but not last) time we get a cut-away. Later chapters actually include scrawled arrows with the names of high-ranking Nazis, just so you know that, well, that guy over there is Martin Bormann.

I guess that was supposed to be part of the fun? The whimsy? I found these, and other conspicuous techniques, repeatedly drew my attention out of the film and to the film-making process. (Hey, look at me! I’m making a movie!)

I’ve pointed out already that this movie isn’t really about the titular Inglorius Basterds. It’s not really The Great Escape or Kelly’s Heroes or Stalag 17—or, hell, even “Hogan’s Heroes"—where you get to know a bunch of macho characters as they do manly things. You meet these guys in the second chapter, and they come back half-way through the fourth chapter or so.

They’re really supporting players. And so, while the (relatively) few scenes they’re in are sort of brutally whimsical, that’s not really what the movie is about. That might have been more fun as a movie.

Instead, the real story is about a young Jewish woman who escapes her family’s horrible fate and then attracts the attention of a young Nazi war hero. This leads her to concoct a plot to kill a bunch of Nazis.

This story isn’t as whimsical as it sounds, and not even hinted at in the trailer. Worse, it leads to another long scene with lots of dialog that should be suspenseful but manages to be completely free of any sort of involvement.

The ending is pretty satisfying. And I really wasn’t too bored. So, as far as QT movies go, this one seemed less boring than the others.

Hey, I said I wasn’t a Tarantino guy. At least one guy was so involved in the movie he answered his phone at the climactic scenes, and instead of leaving the theater actually proceeded to have a discussion standing at the door five feet from us. I mean, that’s compelling: A phone call so important you have to take it, but a movie so compelling you’ll risk your life by refusing to leave the theater, and standing right next to the guy brandishing the bowie knife, getting ready to carve a cell phone into your forehead.

Ha! Sorry, just engaging in some IB-style whimsy.

Anyway, the Boy thought it was over-hyped. He was bored and said, "It made me want to play Company of Heroes on the German side.” He’s not a QT guy either, apparently.

Movie Review: District 9

I was sort of dreading going to see District 9 due to the summer factor mentioned previously with Orphan. But sci-fi isn’t the modern teen male proving ground that horror is, and it’s also generally more consistently loud, so I figured we’d brave it.

Not a stretch to say that it’s one of the best of the year. Interesting without that sort of self-important/self-conscious thought-provoking weightiness. It manages to walk the fine line between cynicism and nihilism, horror and dark comedy, and action-film with social commentary.

The premise (a la Alien Nation) is that a giant spaceship is hovering over Johannesburg. The ship is cracked open to discover a chaotic situation of aliens running around. The Prawns, as they’re nicknamed, end up being set up in a Joburg ghetto, where much degeneracy ensues.

Into this mess goes a South African by the name of Wikus, whose boss, the MultiNational United corporation, is under tremendous pressure to relocate the aliens to a happy fun-time camp 200 miles away. (Although I’d say this was neither a “left” nor “right” movie, there really is no reason for the MNU. It could just as well have been a government agency. And, let’s be honest: In any real situation, it would have been a government agency.)

Anyway, Wikus (pronounced like the plant, “Ficus”) gets into some trouble while trying to evict people, and ends up slowly mutating into a Prawn.

I know people are saying this is really original, but it’s almost hackery, isn’t it? Haven’t there been a dozen Star Trek episodes over various series that have done this? Isn’t it essentially Logan’s Run? Dances with Wolves? The premise of being forced to walk in your enemy’s mocassins, as it were. The one original story in The Twilight Zone Movie, and the one that seemed the tritest, perhaps not coincidentally.

No matter: This works because it is done expertly. The acting is excellent, and the transformation that Wikus goes through is really nuanced and interesting. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s cheerful and people seem to like him. So it’s jarring to see him do some of the things he does early on in the Prawn camp. We alternate between liking him and not liking him, throughout the movie.

Said movie being almost non-stop suspense. You never know who, if anyone, is going to survive. You don’t know when they’re gonna get it. The movie does come down to two central characters, but death is imminent for both throughout most of the movie—and they manage to get you to care, which is the chief bugaboo of action films.

There were half-a-dozen places the movie might’ve ended before it did. And things did get a little dodgy in the end, just from a practicality standpoint. However—and this is a credit to the story—I found myself engaging in apologetics to a degree. I could see how certain things that seemed far-fetched could happen, given other things that had been set up. (I don’t want to be specific, lest I spoil things.)

The camerawork is largely shakycam, though not as bad as, say, Rachel Getting Married or Cloverfield. Since it’s actually part documentary (in the film), I think it would’ve been more effective to go to a steadycam during the non-documentary scenes, but I didn’t really notice that much.

I’ve pointed out that the acting is good, and the effects are just right. The only time I felt like yelling out “CGI!” was with a young Prawn—and of course that would be difficult to do well. The ending is just right, too. You’re on the edge of the seat and you actually feel like you won’t mind the (inevitable) sequel.

The Boy gives his thumbs up.

In The Loop

I’m seriously inclined to begin this review with a political screed. This movie carefully avoids any direct connection to actual events, however, so I suppose I should, too.

The story concerns a young new aide to the British Minister of State. The minister has just put his foot in it by saying that “war is unforeseeable”. And then, trying to fix things, follows up with something like “to walk the road of peace you must sometimes climb the mountain of conflict.”

This is a dry, wry and cutting movie, with quite a few laughs as the government of two nations (the UK and the USA) are shown to run by cowardly, self-involved incompetents who play petty games with each other and who generally put their goals ahead of what those goals might result in.

There’s a great cast, including Torchwood’s Peter Capaldi as a vicious agent of—well, I’m never actually sure who he worked for, Tom Hollander (who antagonized Keira Knightly in both Pride and Prejudice and The Pirates of the Caribbean) as the self-involved but ultimately well-meaning minister, MirrorMask’s Gina McKee as his assistant, and writer/actor Chris Addison as the young, new assistant. (He’s 37, but he doesn’t look it.) The great Steve Coogan (recently in the Night at the Museum sequel) has a part, too.

The first 20 minutes of this movie may be hard for you to understand. If, like me, it takes you about that long to be able to adapt to a mishmash of English and Scottish accents—the latter being both thick, and fast with some of the cutest swearing you’ll ever hear. It’s nasty, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t help but smile when I hear “fook” and “shite” and “koont”. I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it they’d chosen a clearer sound: It’s all very organic, having people talking over each other; talking over each other with thick accents and a kind of muddiness makes things hard to parse.

The Americans are easier to understand. (For me, that is. You native English and Scots may have a hard time with them. But fook you.) They include Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini as the ultra-violent anti-war general and Mimi Kennedy, who’s probably best known as Dharma’s mom. (I kept thinking it was Alison LaPlaca and that she looked really old, but for Mimi Kennedy she was looking pretty young.) David Rasche, whose breakthrough was the short-lived “Sledge Hammer!” TV series, has happily managed to break that “type”, playing a hard-nosed (right-wing?) clean-mouthed politico.

The jokes, the sarcasm, the verbal irony and scathing wit fly fast and furious. And when you can catch it, it’s pretty dang funny. The cinéma vérité isn’t overdone, and it’s not boring.

And yet, it falls short of being great satire. It starts as appropriately harsh condemnation of political figures, but by the third act, dramatic irony is sacrificed on the altar of an earnest condemnation of that classic demon, rushing to war with bad intelligence. The bad guys—as they are clearly defined by this time—are just all-fired hot to have themselves a war, and completely willing to subvert an intelligence report to get one.

Why? Who knows? Who cares? Just run with it. Just fill in Evil W and Dick Cheney and their lapdog Blair and an entertaining satire gets bogged down in its own attempt to be significant. This pissed me off because it’s one of the stupider shibboleths of the left about Iraq: Yet that had to be the longest rush to war in modern times, with the topic under debate for over a decade.

That might bug you a lot less than it does me, but there’s really nothing else to hang on to. You could say they weren’t being specific so as to not make a political point, and then you’re left with a bad drama where the bad guys are so bad they’ll blatantly commit serious crimes—right out in the open!—for the sole purpose of starting a war. We don’t even get a nod to Stupid-Evil Economic Theory (see Gary Oldman’s “broken windows” speech in The Fifth Element).

Just random evil for the sake of random evil. Aided by a whole lot of feckless sorta-good. Satire becomes cynicism. Just to put this in perspective, imagine Network if the network killed Howard Beale for no reason. Or Very Bad Things if the “heroes” had just gone on a killing spree. Harold and Maude if Harold killed Maude, or The Ladykillers without the heist.

Epic black comedy fail. Assuming that was the intention of course. A really good black comedy—and one with the ring of truth—would have had the two sides switching by the end of the movie on the basis of some sort of election or polling result.

The Boy liked it, though he had an even harder time making out the dialogue than I did. Plus, there were references to “old stuff” I know he missed.

Recommend it? Depends on how much you agree with or are annoyed by implicit reinforcements of anti-war dogma—I mean, it’s not like we’ll ever see a movie about The Rush To Healthcare or The Rush To Cap-and-Trade—and whether you’re good at parsing out thick accents all talking at once.

(500) Days of Summer: Damn you, Global Warmening!

I was running hot-and-cold on the idea of seeing the (500) Days of Summer. The previews reek of This Is An Independent Film. And sometimes I get a little twitchy when I hear the acoustic guitar and screechy voice on trailer after trailer after trailer.

And it’s not a love story, it’s a story about love. That’s the actual tagline. I read something like that and I think: Aw, hell, someone’s gonna die.

‘cause in the world of indie theater, you can’t hardly have a happy ending and keep your bona fides. Which tends to make indie love stories as predictable as their big budget parallels, but a lot more depressing. A lukewarm tweet and IMDB listing it as the 116th greatest movie of all time, made me suspicious.

But then I got a positive review from a relative and then Ruth Anne Adams tweeted a positive review–and, well, we’d seen everything else. So, off we went.

(500) Days of Summer concerns Tom and Summer, who meet at a greeting card company in Los Angeles. He falls for her immediately, though he’s kind of a tortured soul and takes weeks to—well, actually, he never asks her out. He obsesses over her for weeks and then a friend tells her he likes her after a night of drunken karaoke.

This is after we learn that Summer doesn’t believe in destiny, fate, soul mates—or love, even.

The movie uses a device to jump around between the various days in the 500, and this works very well, most of the time, showing us some wonderful counterpoints in the tumultuous relationship. It’s not a spoiler to say that the “boy loses girl” part is about 280 days in, and the question the movie is largely concerned with is: Can Tom get Summer back? How did he loser her? And should Tom get Summer back?

Since we only see Summer through Tom’s eyes, we actually get a very incomplete view of her. She seems a bit damaged, a bit closed off, maybe even a bit cold, but we’re not given a lot to base out views on. Ultimately, then, this is a movie about Tom, which is definitely different for a love story.

The ending is also different.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star, and at not quite 30, I think it must be pretty cool to be a 20-year-veteran. The object of his obsessive affection is Zooey Deschanel who is particularly plausible as the sort of girl you could obsess over, even if you never really understood her.

Good acting, from the leads and the supporting characters, who generally contribute to the story. The only supporting role that kind of clunked for me was that of Tom’s younger sister. The actress (Chloe Moretz) wasn’t at fault; I just thought the 12-year-old with all the relationship advice was kind of a hacky device.

The music wasn’t irritating either, and not too much like “Wow, we’re setting our soundtrack to a movie.” I thought “Bookends” was an odd choice but otherwise I thought it fit nicely.

Besides the usual pitfalls of movie-making, indie films have special pitfalls to avoid, and when they’re successful artistically, they often have the special pitfall of being ridiculously overhyped (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Napoleon Dynamite).

116th best movie ever? Well,that’s a bit much. It’s a very good movie. Different without being militantly quirky. Bittersweet without being schmaltzy. The Boy approved.

And this was the third film in a row we saw set in Los Angeles. (This showed a side of L.A. you don’t usually see, either, which was nice.)

So, set your sights accordingly, and you’ll have a good time.

Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk

Some of the synopses of this movie about a psychiatrist who kind of deteriorates into depression and drug abuse make it sound like a sort of wacky, black-ish comedy.

Don’t be fooled. Shrink is a movie about surviving the suicide of someone you love, and in a larger sense, surviving life with is failures and even successes. There are some darkly funny moments, but a whole lot of depression.

Kevin Spacey plays a psychiatrist to the stars: A successful man with successful clients who wallow in neuroses and look to him for excuses for their bad behavior. But he’s increasingly depressed over the loss of his wife, and unable to use the information in his bestselling novels to help himself out of his funk.

I should put in a ROBIN WILLIAMS ALERT for Trooper York: Williams plays–well, I’m guessing a character maybe based on Jack Nicholson?–and he’s actually not very convincing. But he’s not in it much, and he’s not obnoxious.

The main characters are an agent played by Dallas Roberts, who is as powerful as he is neurotic, a screenwriter/tenuous relative to Spacey played by Mark Webber, a troubled urban school kid played by Keke Palmer, and an overly successful strung-out actor played by Jack Huston (yes, of those Hustons).

That’s a lot of main characters. Which gives us the primary failing of this movie.

There’s a writer by the name of Robert Newton Peck who wrote a cute little book on how to write, in which gave various rules about what to do and what not to do. One of the things that stuck with me was “Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.” In other words, you don’t mention that your main character is in a phone booth (okay, outdated now) with a gorilla, and then go off on 12 tangents while leaving everyone wondering about the character, the gorilla, and the antiquated phone booth.

This doesn’t create suspense, typically. It does create annoyance. And so, while have our main-ist of main characters, played by Spacey, we’re constantly being yanked away from the interesting stories and pulled into another story which isn’t nearly as interesting. Then it gets interesting and we’re pulled away from that into another one.

Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten away with this, arguably, with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, except that he lets the scene finish before switching to a new scene. Not completely resolve, but finish as a reasonably self-contained unit. The exception being when the stories overlap in a suspenseful way and are about meet up.

This movie just sprawls, sort of fecklessly unsure of where it’s going, but reasonably sure about the quality of the material it has in its characters. Who, when you break them down sound pretty cliché: the psych who can’t help himself, the troubled urban kid, the desperate screenwriter, the self-absorbed agent, the star who self-destructs because he’s not producing quality “art”, the starlet trying to sleep her way to the top, the aging actress who can’t get good roles….

Geez, I may have talked myself into thinking this is a worse movie than I thought before I started this review. The characters don’t come off horribly hacky, though. The movie is really buoyed by the relationships of the main characters with the supporting characters, like the titular character with his drug dealer Jesus (Jesse Plemmons). Although this is sort of hacky, too, since, fercryinoutloud, his name is Jesus. Not hay-soos–he’s a ginger named “Jesus”.

Well, at least they don’t put any words of wisdom in his mouth, exactly.

Another bright spot is Pell James as Daisy, pregnant assistant to the high-powered agent, who gives us a reason to like both the agent and the screenwriter. Robert Loggia brings some nice gravitas to his short role. And Saffron Burrows as the aging actress (she’s 36 or 37!) is delightful.

Ultimately, though, the movie founders: It’s too unfocused, even remote from its own characters. We don’t get enough time with them to appreciate their changes, and the movie doesn’t sell their flawed selves well enough to allows us appreciate their transformations. They’re actually not really in conflict with each other most of the time.

The whole thing comes off a little boring, a little listless. Marijuana plays a big part; maybe there’s a connection there. Heh.

The Boy was not thrilled. He thought it could’ve been funnier and overall less drab. I tend to agree.

Second movie in a row we saw that took place in L.A., though. (Previous one: Funny People).

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Charleton Heston Three

Although he became a right-wing icon, it’s hard to think of the guy who uttered such cynical and dark anti-human sentiments in three iconic apocalyptic films of that cinematic cesspool known as the late ‘60s/early ’70s as being conservative.

Well, okay, it’s hard to imagine Ronald Reagan saying those things. We don’t have to imagine Heston saying these things, because he did.

In the first, and by far the best, movie of the pseudo-trilogy is Planet of the Apes. Heston wanders around a sort-of 19th century desert world where non-human primates struggle with Enlightenment ideas and a hugely restrictive religion that’s bent on covering up a dark past. It’s a grossly cynical movie that works because it’s also a great action film, a Twilight-Zone-esque mystery, and for all its cynicism, does not come across as a nihilistic film.

I should read Pierre Boulle’s novel. If I understand correctly, his story took place in a world more like the world of the 1960s, and I think was more meant as an indictment of consumerism and social satire. Tim Burton’s remake sort of touches on that idea–but that movie is haunted by the greatness of the original and contorts itself into absurdity trying to surprise.

The second film in the trilogy is The Omega Man. This is the second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller I Am Legend. I’ve talked about it in the link there, so I won’t rehash it much. This movie is the most wildly uneven of the three: The high points–the horror and action setup–are as high as the low points–the whole hippie-as-vampire thing–are low.

I mean, I’ve been impressed by how good parts are, and also how much other parts make me positively wince.

So, I suppose, it’s fair to argue that Soylent Green is a better movie. Meh. It’s so steeped in the sort of thing that our current science czar believes that I find it too hard to take seriously. And it was meant to be taken seriously–and people did.

Omega didn’t really leave any culturally legacies. Soylent left one really prominent one (and a few lesser known ones). And of course Apes is almost up there with Wizard of Oz as far as iconic screen moments and bits of dialogue go.

Still, it’s hard not to look back at those days and think, “Thank God, they’re over!” At least for me, from a cinematic standpoint, anyway. The ’80s would set its own post-Apocalyptic tone with the highly entertaining Mad Max series. Then the point became not “here’s how the world ends” but more “well, now that the world’s ended, let’s party!”

Funny People Who Need People Are The Funniest People In The World

When I saw the posters for Funny People, I thought to myself, “Aw, Apatow finally gave his wife a serious role in one of his movies.” And then, the quirky-but-cute Leslie Mann doesn’t show up for the first half of the movie.

The thing to know about this movie going in is that it’s not funny ha-ha. In fact, the movie should be called Funny (not ha-ha) People or maybe Funny (Strange) People. Because that’s what it’s about.

Really, though, that’s what all Apatow movies are about. People love all the gross humor and all that, but what always supports that are characters. Strange characters trying to figure out what “normal” is–late era victims of a cultural revolution that left us knowing how to groom, how to behave, how, in short, to grow-up.

As a strange person, I kind of like that. I kind of identify with the 40-year-old virgin, the guy who knocked up the girl, and now the sensitive self-deprecating comedian who’s struggling to, uh, struggle less.

First up, though, I note for Knox’s sake that Seth Rogan has lost a fair amount of weight, and is looking pretty good. (I think he’s kind of good looking, in a friendly sort of boy-next-door way, but I’m not exactly qualified to judge.) And, his love interest is Aubrey Plaza, who is adorable but convincingly mousey in this role.

Unfortunately, people identify primarily with the gross humor, which means that Apatow is sort of stuck delivering that, if he expects to keep up the same box office receipts. But as the Farrelly brothers can attest, even that wears out. But if you’re not expecting that, and at the same time not put off by it, uh, this is your movie.

The story is that young, sensitive comedian Ira, living with two more successful guys (Jonah Hill as a better stand-up and Jason Schwartzman, who also has a composer credit on this film, as the handsome young sitcom actor), gets a sudden break when big-shot George Simmons (Adam Sandler) discovers he’s dying and needs a new assistant.

Simmons is a weirdo. He’s been very successful, and so lives a self-involved, shallow existence. In short order, Ira becomes his closest–if not only–friend. Ira ultimately helps him remake the human contact he abandoned on his way to success. Including, incidentally, Leslie Mann, who figures heavily in to the third act.

There are two obvious ways a story like this can end and I was rather pleased that this movie took neither of those two routes. If there’s a message here, it’s awfully close to that old saw attributed to Ed Wynn: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Well, what can you say about this movie? It’s ridiculously better than the abysmal Punchline, the 1988 Tom Hanks/Sally Field vehicle, both in terms of being funny and in terms of being not incredibly painful to watch. It has a lot of funny parts, too. And it manages to deal with its serious topics in a fairly light-hearted manner.

And, typical of Apatow, he doesn’t take the easy way out.

Sort of amusingly, this is probably the least gross of his gross-out comedies. Most of the gross stuff is, well, comedians telling jokes, which is a lot less graphic than having those jokes acted out.

One thing I love about movies like this is that they can line up the comedians (Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Charles Fleischer, Paul Reiser, Ray Romano, etc.) for the group scenes or montages, serious or funny, and it’s going to be cool.

One of the big problems with Punchline was that neither Fields nor Hanks were stand-up comedians. Their material wasn’t very good, and they demonstrated very well that being affable and even charismatic was no substitute for having stand-up chops.

Sandler, Hill and Rogan actually are (or have been) stand-up comedians, and Rogan does a nice bit of bad stand-up that demonstrates subtly, yet clearly, how his character grows (as a stand-up) over the course of the movie. Sandler also does a good job being the self-involved character who manages to be really, really self-involved.

When Mann shows up as the sort-of frustrated older actress (and mom of the same two adorable Apatow kids who were in Knocked Up), you kind of get an eerie feeling like all these people are acting a little less than remembering. That’s–well, either really convenient or just good acting. (As Groucho Marx nearly observed, it’s a lot easier to get good acting out of a comedian than good comedy out of an actor.)

Anyway, I liked it. The Boy liked it, even though it topped the 2 hour mark. I thought it was pretty tight despite the length. I had a little trouble with believing Seth Rogan was a stand-up comedian. I liked that he was Mr. Sensitive but I didn’t see how Mr. Sensitive could actually survive as a stand-up.

And that raised another issue that was really only lightly touched on. I mean, if all your friends are comedians–hardcore pro or wannabes–then it’s gotta be a bitch having a real problem. For one thing, that particular subculture (at least by reputation) considers jokes to be an acceptable response to things most humans don’t joke about.

I mean, the highest form of eulogy is to roast the deceased. I kept thinking about Andy Kaufman having a hard time convincing anyone he was dying.

I just wasn’t sure how someone like Ira could survive. Ah, what the heck. It worked for me. And I sort of wonder if the sensitive character, the one who turns up in these movies and seems so out of place for adhering to a traditional view of sex and relationships, isn’t Apatow himself.

Fun fact, though: Sandler and Apatow were room-mates, and the movie opens with some home movies from that time period.

The Hurt Locker

Like the rest of you, I was outraged by this movie! I needed to know: Who hurt this locker, and why?


The Hurt Locker is the latest from the beautiful and talented Kathryn Bigelow, the story of a EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) squad in its final days in Iraq 2004.

Bigelow’s catalogue is a mixed bag, delivering an unexpected gem in the early vampire movie Near Dark, and an unexpected stink bomb in the Jamie Lee Curtis/Ron Silver starrer Blue Steel. (Really, that film has a killer cast, great atmosphere, a reasonably promising premise, and yet it’s astonishingly bad. It’s worth seeing just to try to figure out why.) However, those were quite some time ago and Bigelow hasn’t directed much since the high profile bomb K-19: The Widowmaker. (I rather liked that one and thought a number of the critiques were sort of superficial.)

If The Hurt Locker shows anything, it’s that Bigelow is supremely confident and competent handling scenes of high suspense. This movie is 80% powered by suspenseful set pieces, as the crew defuses bombs and otherwise engages with hostiles in Iraq. A persistent tension holds these scenes together like glue (without being annoying, as tension can be over a 2-hour-plus period).

Bomb defusing is of course inherently suspenseful, but if it seems like low-hanging fruit, consider all the times it’s been done badly, even when it’s done once or twice in a film. This film has at least five bomb defusings, each one different from the last, and each one putting you on the edge of your seat.

I almost didn’t see this film, since I read a review (from a right-winger) saying that the movie got political at the end, ruining an otherwise good film. In trying to find that review again, I came across a slew of leftist reviews that were alternately pissed at the absence of politics, pissed at the notion that it wasn’t political and/or just pissed at the whole war.

I’m happy to report that if you don’t bring your political baggage to this movie, you probably won’t find it to be especially political. Leave your English degree at home, too, lest you start seeing metaphors for…stuff.

So, beyond the excellent suspense scenes, and the atmosphere of tensions, what else do we have? Well, our three leads are either clichés or archetypes, take your pick. And the last 20 or so minutes, which is meant to give us insight into the main character’s psyche–well, really doesn’t particularly. I suspect there’s an element in here of trying to make a political statement, but it’s pretty weak tea. (There’s really not much of a political statement you can make when you’re dealing with the guys on the ground; war looks the same from there, regardless of politics.)

What else? Well, the whole thing struck me as a little far-fetched. OK, not just a little, a lot. I didn’t delve into details on how the EOD squads worked, but–well, these guys didn’t seem to be with anyone, to answer to anyone, or even particularly be affected by anything else going on. They just went out to answer bomb threats and then–again weirdly–left the defused ordinance lying around. (I presume for others to clean out, but this was part of the isolation the movie shows.)

In writing this, I stumbled across this interview pointing out some the same issues I had.

OK, so, don’t take it like it’s supposed to be Michael Yon’s blog–though they came awfully close to recreating his classic photo–and don’t bring your political baggage and you can have a good time. If you do bring your political baggage, you can probably find support for whatever point-of-view you have if you look hard enough.

The Boy also liked it, though he thinks it won’t hold up well. That is, he thinks the immediacy of the Iraq War gives the movie an extra cachet it won’t have a few years down the line.

Either way, I hope see more films from Bigelow.