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by Bill Gibron

18 May 2008


We’ve truly become Marshall McLuhan’s worst nightmare. For us, reality television and the media is everything - nurturer, educator, entertainer, opinion former, purveyor of history and definer of myth. We no longer think for ourselves. Instead, we ‘blog’ to let the world in on our thought processes, falsely believing that the audience is doing anything more than laughing under their laptop. The news is no longer the truth - YouTube processes the raw footage editorial control and journalistic ethics censor. Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for such strictures, but in the outlaw lands of the Internet, it’s unimportant. In the World Wild Web West, it’s vigilante justice with a MySpace page.

As he has done with each of his previous Dead installments, horror maestro George Romero has used the current political and/or social clime (and his views on same) as a subtext to his zombie terrors. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the unraveling revolution of the ‘60s. Dawn of the Dead commented on the rampant consumerism of the Me Decade. The ‘80s got Day of the Dead, as a conservative militarized nation trying to take back Morning in America. Land of the Dead gave the ‘90s boom and ‘00s bust a heinous “haves vs. have nots” sheen. Now comes his latest masterpiece, a self-proclaimed reboot aimed squarely at the nu-tech age, and it’s just as brilliant. 

Diary of the Dead follows the adventures of Jason Creed, his girlfriend Beth, their film class professor, and a group of their college buddies during the shooting of an independent fright flick. As they set up sequences in a deserted wood, they get word that the world as they know it is slowly disintegrating. The dead are returning to life…and feasting on the living. As the standard order breaks down and collapses, they hop into their rundown production RV and head out on the highway. As the others try to make sense of their situation, Jason keeps his camera rolling - the better to document, as he puts it, “The Death of Death”.

Leave it to Romero to reinvent himself in such a sharp, sarcastic manner. Clearly concerned about the plugged-in yet clue-less nature of the supposedly media-savvy, his latest effort ravages the ‘www’ terrain while reminding viewers that no one gives up the gruesome gore gags better. Diary of the Dead (new to DVD from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme Division) is an old timer’s take on the way communication has cannibalized itself, how as one character puts it, “nothing is real until you see it onscreen”. By utilizing the soon to be tired first person POV that drove both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, he channels the inherent anxiety of such a limited scope. But unlike those other films, he finds a way to add something salient to the scares.

Romero is clearly a master of allegorical macabre. Sometimes, his riffs are obvious (zombies stumbling through a shopping mall). At other instances, like throughout most of Diary, he’s devious with his metaphors. There are nods to every other living dead movie he’s made, from the newscast as narrative drive of the action (like Night) to the supposed safe fortress of unimaginable wealth and material leisure (as in Dawn). We get bastard military men (ala Day) and a true sense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden being blamed and corded off from the rest of scared suburbia (like Land). In fact, Romero appears to be coalescing all that came before, suggesting that this is the real horror tale he wanted to tell.

There’s another level here that’s equally effective. As a director, Romero keeps his cast off kilter, making them appear amateurish or brash because…well, that’s what these kids really would be, given the circumstances. Turning them into well-honed thespians with a sharp handle on exactly what to do would ruin the ‘you are there’ dynamic. Sure, this is scripted, avoiding the expletive filled pointlessness of Witch‘s weak kneed trio. But Romero expertly captures the aimlessness of young people wittingly out of touch with true reality. Everything they know, everything they do, is filtered through the instant gratification of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, Wi-Fi, satellite television, and endless hours surfing the ‘Net. They practically speak in text messages. Even worse, our hero never helps the people he films. Even as they are threatened, he uses the detachment of the camera to keep from getting directly involved.

There is an additional caustic undercurrent championed here, a personal one Romero refers to constantly in the DVD extras. As part of his commentary track, he leans into the problems with progress, how it renders individuals unable to solve their own problems. Similarly, his interview segments as part of the making-of material come off as thoughtful and quite insightful. This is clearly a film about thinking for oneself, about avoiding the inevitable terror clichés to survive in a world gone wicked. Naturally, characters do the kind of things that end up causing them concern. They’ve been programmed, brainwashed by a social setup of zero accountability to believe in such slop psychology.

That this all happens within the context of a ripping creepshow cements why Romero remains a god. Between the clever kills, the ample arterial spray, and the relentless suspense (the single lens viewpoint makes us feel like part of the refugees), we are treated to a corrosive combination of blood and bleakness. Fans have long felt that Day of the Dead was the director’s darkest vision. Diary will more than likely usurp that underground angst fest. The effects work here by Greg Nicotero and KNB (along with additional help from SPIN VFX) is amazing. Heads are split open, melted with acid, and parted at the jawline. The images are startling, reminding us of how powerful onscreen violence can be when handled with artistry and appreciation.

Considering his age (he’ll be 68 this year) and the number of years he’s been making films (2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead), it’s fascinating how George Romero can continue to bring fresh, invigorating ideas to the genre he inadvertently created four decades ago.  Even better, he keeps pushing the envelope of expression, incorporating as many current controversies and concerns into his plot points as possible. It will be interesting to see if Romero again returns to this material, especially within the context of the ongoing War in Iraq and the contemporary climate of fear we now live in (there are some minor hints of same in Diary). Like any great virtuoso, the Godfather of the zombie film has more to offer than a series of flesh-feasting set pieces. Diary of the Dead is a sparkling reflection of our troubled times - and the images in the everpresent viewfinder are not pretty.


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by Bill Gibron

17 May 2008


It used to be a movie. Now, it’s a myth. Where once it represented the concerted efforts of some Pittsburgh admen and their desire to enter into the realm of commercial filmmaking, now it’s the granddaddy of all zombie flicks. But beyond all the legends, the factual falsehoods and made up mysteries, lies one of the supreme experiments in horror ever conceived - and to believe those involved, it was more an accident than intentional. Between proposed narratives about invading aliens to the decision to cast a black man in the lead, Night of the Living Dead was as much happenstance as pure intention. Yet the results speak for themselves - and for generations - even 40 years later.

So much has been written about this now classic creepfest that it’s impossible to imagine any new product providing additional insight. From the proposed political subtext to the proto-documentary cinema vérité camerawork, director George Romero and his post-modern macabre remains the proverbial overbeaten movie mare. Everyone, from the casual fan to the detail-oriented obsessive has a take on this material, a way of making a weekend effort by some bored professionals into a universal statement on the story of man. Of course, as the years have passed, those involved have begun to believe their own fable. It remains one of the more intriguing aspects of the film’s heritage.

For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, it all begins when adult siblings Barbara and Johnny travel to a distant cemetery to lay a wreath on their father’s grave. During their visit to the site, Johnny is accosted by a strange man and is mortally wounded. Barbara runs for her life and, after wrecking the car, seeks shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. There she finds a rotting corpse in the upstairs hall. Before she can gather her thoughts, a black man named Ben barges through the door and starts sealing up the house. He has also had some “run-ins” with angry individuals, and has witnessed the senseless brutality of the mob.

As he secures the doors and windows, a group of people appears from the basement. They are Helen and Harry Cooper, a married couple with a sick child in the cellar. Local boy Tom and his girlfriend Judy are also present. They escaped to the house after being accosted. A radio reports the awful truth: the dead have risen, and have started to kill…and eat the living. Tempers flare and plans are hatched. There is a gas pump on the property. If they could refuel Ben’s truck, they could escape. But as more and more zombies encircle the house, these survivors come to a horrible realization: they may not survive this ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

In conjunction with their release of Romero’s latest take on the genre, 2008’s divisive Diary of the Dead, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company are putting out an anniversary DVD of Night, complete with some new bonus features. In many instances, the reverence almost ruins what is an inherently fascinating tale of ambition and realization. It goes without saying that everyone more or less knows Night, and if they think that they don’t, they just haven’t realized it yet. Romero and a group of local Pittsburgh day players more or less invented the undead Bible, laying the foundation for the meat-eating mythos in all of its bullet-in-the-head, shuffling corpse glory. Influencing more films than the works of Fellini, Kubrick, and Cassavetes combined, this black-and-white marvel of minimalism packed a powerful wallop in its decidedly low-budget heyday.


A look around the current pop culture landscape produces more bows to the living dead dynamic than anyone should have to endure. There are remakes of other Romero classics (Dawn of the Dead and some unnecessary offal called Day of the Dead) just waiting to sully our memories of the originals. The omnipresent videogame industry (creators of such software shockers as Silent Hill and Resident Evil) has taken the foul flesh eater and turned it into Level Three’s big bad “boss” (not to mention creating their own motion picture spin-offs). Honestly, it seems that society is fixated on the ornery undead in a very big spending way. Even rock and roll has embraced the creepy cadavers - surely Rob Zombie isn’t celebrating a certain rum-based drink with his horror handle.

That being said, Night of the Living Dead has not really aged all that well. Sure, it’s still a masterpiece, but one that’s been lessened by its status as the standard-bearer for the entire walking corpse conundrum. The movie is still a fascinating, fatalistic work. But it is very talky in its middle act, a lot of the more horrible elements of the story needing exposition to envision them, since the production couldn’t afford to create the necessary visuals. Action and bloodshed comes in spurts and many modern horror fans, more adjusted to a ratio of down time to killing spree will consider this scattershot approach too much to tolerate.

Also, Night has been basically remade a million times in both direct (John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) and inspired (Aliens has a lot of the same “us vs. them” vibe) ways, so much so that it’s almost an experience in rote entertainment. You don’t respond to what’s happening onscreen as much as the realization that you understand the plotting implicitly and realize automatically what will occur next. While it is still dark, foreboding and cruelly heartless, Night of the Living Dead has left a lot of its cinematic effectiveness in the past, where people appreciated its attention to authenticity. Today, it almost plays like a parody of itself, overworking all the formulas and clichés it helped create.

That’s why this newest DVD is so intriguing. Aside from delivering a devastatingly crisp and clean image (the new 1.33:1 transfer looks amazing), the added content continues to further redefine the film’s formative fairytale. Between commentaries and interviews, we learn of the role mannequins played in the production and that Dwayne Jones was not hired for his skin color, but his availability and ability as an actor. Distributors were also disturbed by the amount of dialogue and actually demanded six minutes of contextual conversations be edited. Their stipulation for more zombie footage also fell on deaf ears, since Romero and crew had limited amounts of that material. Perhaps most compelling of all, a terrible flood destroyed most of the artifacts associated with the film, including the actual work print.

Granted, some of these stories have been offered up before, and when it comes to staying firmly within the boundaries of their illustrious reputation, Romero, producer John Russo, and other members of the Night committee aren’t about to stray too far. The new documentary created for the 40th anniversary, entitled One for the Fire, uses a stagy recreationist approach to get some valuable information across. While it’s great to see the remaining cast look back at their foolhardy novice naiveté with a wistful veneration, it’s hard to argue that they do much more than repeat what fright fans have already committed to memory. Indeed, the main stumbling block Night of the Living Dead faces is its own well-earned scary movie status. Objectivity is no longer possible, or perhaps necessary.

And like any great hero, the movie moves on, forever heading toward the sincere sunset of cinematic classicism. It is an amazing achievement considering the dozens of like minded efforts that crammed their way into drive-ins and dives during the same period. Because of what Romero created, because of his desire to treat the schlocky subject seriously and with an unflinching eye, the results speak for themselves. Night of the Living Dead, the movie, may indeed render Night of the Living Dead, the 40th Anniversary DVD edition meaningless, but the journey into the past is still a captivating one. While one may never be able to experience this seminal film the way audiences did four decades ago, at least we have such scholarship to keep its cause contemporary. In that regard, this newest packaging is a success. 

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DVD:

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


Summer’s still sizzling away, and for the weekend beginning 16 May, here are the films in focus:

CJ7 [rating: 7]

CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course

Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom.  read full review…
 

Frontier(s) [rating: 7]

Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.

When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride. read full review…
 

Hats Off [rating: 5]

Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic.

There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested. .read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [rating: 5]

When will Hollywood learn that you can’t recapture the magic of a previous cinematic epic. If it was possible to capture lightning in a bottle over and over again, no franchise would fail. The sad fact remains that, for every Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter tale, there are a dozen Golden Compasses. The Chronicles of Narnia were reviled by J.R.R. Tolkein, the author arguing that C. S. Lewis’ faith-based fantasies were too enamored of their internal belief subtext to work as actual adventures. Mr. Hobbit had a helluva point. While the first film in the series, the likeable The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had the entire make believe mythos to deal with, the sullen sequel Prince Caspian just pours on the pointless war mongering. The Penvensie quartet is back in their former kingdom for the first time in a year. Sadly, 13 centuries have passed, and a despotic race of human Telmarines is in charge. They have all but destroyed the empire, and evil King Miraz has removed rightful heir Caspian from the throne. With everyone speaking in thick Spanish accents and relying on knowledge of the books to avoid narrative depth, we wind up with a series of long walks followed by sequences of slipshod CGI swordplay. While it’s not quite dull, it’s never the spectacle that returning director Andrew Adamson thinks it is. In the end, we find ourselves waiting for an entertainment epiphany that never comes. 

 

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested.

Though she always fancied herself a star, Mimi Weddell spent the first 60 years of her life as a wife, mother, and unexpected career gal. While never earning much money, she helped her beloved husband Dick through many a hard time. When he finally lost his job with RCA, it almost destroyed him. Yet Mimi was there, working two or three jobs, getting up at six and coming home at eleven, just to maintain the household. Of course, this didn’t leave much time for her daughter Sarah or son Tom. They were lucky to catch a moment with their mother before she collapsed to catch a few hours sleep.

When Dick finally died, Mimi decided to pursue her dream. She loved the theater and acting, and with perseverance and some unusual casting stock (there aren’t a lot of viable 70, 80, or 90 year olds out there), she soon landed small parts in film and television. She also became a sought after model, and in the process, a New York staple. Now, at 93, she looks back at her life and offers a simple philosophy - rise above it. Life isn’t supposed to be all happiness and fun. When problems come (and she’s faced a veritable mountain of them), she simply stands strong and tries to go beyond them. It’s just too bad that the movie of her life can’t do the same.

Sometimes, blame is easily laid at a film’s foundation. In the case of Hats Off, the critical culprit is Jyll Johnstone. Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic. Indeed, one of the key things we learn about the aging actress is that she’s not an eccentric by circumstance, but by choice. Her idiosyncrasies come from a concerted desire to be different, to stand out in a system that saw her as a nothing more than a gender stereotype. While hopelessly devoted to her husband (the only time we see Mimi tear up is when discussing Dick), she also needed to be her own person. So she developed a mindset, played by the standard social rules, and waited for her moment. 

That it came when she was 70, not 20, is nothing novel. In fact, the concept of the elderly doing unbelievable things has become a Baby Boomer cinematic subject du jour as of late. Luckily, Jonstone doesn’t treat Mimi like a too cute cuddly toy. We get to see her in all her cynical, snarky glory. From the time she rises in the morning to the moment she turns in for the night, our heroine acts like the most put upon person in all of entertainment. She tolerates every audition, reminiscing about jobs she landed and lost (we see clips from her few featured parts). She walks around her cramped apartment, showing off the many hats that define her late in life look (the better to hide her unruly hair).

But Hats Off misses the more absorbing moments. We learn that Mimi is a devotee of Elizabeth Arden, sometimes going to the exclusive NYC salon two or three times a week when she has the money. Yet aside from a tossed off anecdote (Sarah claims that, in response to the death of her dad, she was sent to said beauty parlor on the day he passed), we don’t learn the rationale or reason why. Similarly, both adult children still live with Mimi, though the explanation for such a set-up is specious and lacking vital familial information. Johnstone clearly believes that her star is more than capable of carrying the narrative. Unfortunately, the weight of such an aesthetic want is too great for this nonagenarian to manage.

As we watch her work out, tumbling through gymnastics and stumbling through dicey dance routines, we get hints of hospital visits and advancing physical frailty. With money troubles a constant, we also learn very little about how the clan makes ends meet. The directing would have us believe that the Weddells have always been impoverished, and if not outright poor, generally lacking in anything like disposable cash. Yet Mimi takes off to Florence in an unexpected last act dash, and the before credits title cards indicate that both Sarah and Tom are gainfully employed. There are several creative contradictions in Hats Off, statements starting off along one path only to double back and deaden the impact of previous pronouncements. Mimi may be the most compelling old lady in all of Manhattan. We wouldn’t know.

And in the end, that’s Hats Off biggest problem - a lack of knowledge. Audiences need to walk away from such films feeling something of an identification and a kinship with the subject. It’s an emotional bond that has to move beyond the superficial and the strained. While it’s never boring or lacking in intellectual color, this is one fact film that forgets to add in the “stranger than fiction” facet of the overall picture. As a result, we feel satisfied, but sadly underwhelmed. Mimi Weddell probably deserves better than this. Or maybe, this is all her story demanded. Either way, she makes for a strange subject.

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom. 

Dicky Chow and his father Ti live in a broken down building on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis. Everyday, Dad goes to work as a laborer. Recently widowed, he scrimps and saves to send his son to a fine finishing school. Sure, it means shopping at the local landfill for clothes, food, and necessities, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. Sadly, Dicky is not so inclined. The rich kids at school mock his lack of material goods, and one teacher in particular keeps the boy at ample arms length, finding him dirty and disgusting. When a particularly nasty little snob gets a CJ1 robotic dog as a gift, Dicky immediately wants one too. Sadly, his father can’t afford it. A trip to the dump however yields an odd green orb that may be from outer space. Dubbing it ‘CJ7’, he hopes his son will be impressed. The destitute man has no idea the changes that his discovery will bring.

CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course. Naturally, the nods are easily identified and tend to distract us from the bigger picture Chow is trying to paint. But if you grant the film its E.T. love, and move on to the more engaging class/kids dynamic, you’ll be rewarded with some sunny sci-fi silliness. Of course, there are other motion picture artifacts that Chow is freely filing through, references to the work of Charlie Chaplin, old school slapstick, and the Looney Tunes cartoons the Hong Kong icon loves so dearly. Luckily, a story like CJ7 can sustain such creative schizophrenia. Chow is too good as an actor and auteur to fumble things completely.

Still, the CGI creature at the top of this tale can venture into pop culture crassness now and then. There are moments when such oddball elements as the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rube Goldberg, crime film riffing, and ‘70s disco become part of the comic commentary. Seeing a little green blob “shake its booty” might seem like the height of post-millennial irony, but it comes across as unnecessary and pandering. When Chow allows the character to simply be itself, to stand as a symbol of possibility in an impoverished child’s life, everything gels together effortlessly. The minute it turns into a sloppy sight gag, we share in the need for regurgitation. Movies such as this remind us time and again of Steven Spielberg’s skill. It’s a rare talent that can turn a special effect into an emotional element. CJ7 can’t quite match its main inspiration.

Thankfully, Chow’s reliance on these other sources of inspiration serves him well. Dicky has a wonderful sequence where his newfound toy fulfills all of his wishes. It’s warm without going all gooey. Similarly, a moment when father and son share a ghoulish game of “squash the cockroaches” offers some gross out kiddie fun. An accident at Ti’s workplace has the kind of danger flecked physical comedy that Harold Lloyd and his pre-sound ilk did so well. Chow also has a special way with kids, making them come across as both cartoonish and completely believable. This is especially true of Dicky, who is actually essayed by a young girl. There is other gender bending going on as well, one elephantine young lady appearing to be a boy in bad drag (and a dubbed voice). Chow and the rest of his cast do a good job of balancing the needs of the narrative with the desire to add dimension to these individuals.

Not everything helps, however. The love story between Ti and a teacher is horribly underdeveloped, and the nonstop berating of boy by more mature man and adults will test even the most tolerant individual. Clearly, the Asians believe in the power of corporal punishment, and aren’t beyond slapping a child in the face once in a while. It’s moments like these that argue for CJ7‘s foreign film foundation. We have to accept certain elements of Hong Kong culture - the reliance on dignity and honor, the hard cut distinctions between the rich and the poor - in order to appreciate what Chow is championing. It may seem overdone to us, but we’re not necessarily the choir he is preaching to.

In the end, CJ7 is wise enough to carefully balance its many crazily contradictory aspects. It’s cheesy without being fetid, fun without overdosing on pure juvenile pandering. Those anticipating nothing but “phone home” histrionics will be pleasantly surprised at how this film skirts said expectations. However, those who hate the entire Shrek school of postdated cinematic humor will definitely have issues here. Chow can be forgiven for reverting back to his roots. He wasn’t always a member of the Jackie/Jet set. This kind of pie in the sky production argues for his overall talent and why many see his abilities as infinite. Whimsy can indeed work, as long as it’s handled with care. Chow mostly fulfills the genre’s tenuous needs. 

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