People Are Vectors: George A. Romero’s The Crazies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

The Crazies movie poster

 

George A. Romero prac­ti­cally invented the lucra­tive zom­bie sub­genre with Night of the Liv­ing Dead in 1968, simul­ta­ne­ously trap­ping him­self within it for most of his sub­se­quent career. Romero’s zom­bies served him well enough for six films and count­ing, at least two of which tran­scended the genre and are still dis­cussed in seri­ous terms. His less famous later cre­ations the “cra­zies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influ­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture is dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their fame. They are arguably the­mat­i­cally richer and — despite not tech­ni­cally being zom­bies, per se — exert a greater influ­ence on most sig­nif­i­cant sub­se­quent zom­bie films by other directors.

The Cra­zies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s offi­cial Liv­ing Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a mat­ter of brand­ing. Zom­bies had cap­tured the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in a way that the more vaguely-defined cra­zies could not, at least at first. The clas­si­cal Romero-style zom­bie is sim­ply a rean­i­mated corpse with an insa­tiable ani­mal hunger in place of higher brain func­tion — in effect a sub­trac­tion of the intan­gi­ble human essence, or what a reli­gious per­son would describe as a soul. In con­trast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a liv­ing per­son dri­ven to unchecked vio­lence and lust, while still remain­ing rec­og­niz­ably human.

A scene from George A. Romero's The Crazies“Peo­ple are vectors.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion Romero intro­duced in The Cra­zies can be summed up in its most chill­ing line: “peo­ple are vec­tors.” In Night of the Liv­ing Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mys­te­ri­ous extrater­res­trial radi­a­tion caus­ing the dead to rise. The virus fac­tor would pre­oc­cupy sub­se­quent zom­bie auteurs for decades, par­tic­u­larly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich con­cept that touches on many sen­si­tive themes: pol­lu­tion, con­spir­acy the­o­ries, bio­log­i­cal war­fare, sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases, and pan­demics. While now vir­tu­ally every non-Romero zom­bie movie defaults to a viral ori­gin story, it seems that Romero him­self is dis­in­ter­ested in the mechan­ics of either zom­bies or cra­zies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of sur­vivors, on the run in a world where soci­ety has bro­ken down. Liv­ing humans are a greater dan­ger than mon­sters, and death is no longer absolute.

All the usual Romero tropes are present, par­tic­u­larly insti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion and inep­ti­tude. On the macro level, the U.S. gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary serve their own inter­ests first, to the degree that they func­tion at all. The gov­ern­ment has secretly engi­neered and weaponized a virus with the innocu­ous code­name Trixie and acci­den­tally releases it into the water sup­ply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where por­tions were actu­ally filmed). As in Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. For­get Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.

George A. Romero's The CraziesThe mil­i­tary tries to clean up its own mess

The author­i­ties swoop in and attempt to quar­an­tine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in trans­port­ing the virus, and remain chill­ingly apa­thetic even after the begin­nings of cat­a­stro­phe. One espe­cially cold­blooded gen­eral casu­ally munches sand­wiches while dis­cussing how to con­tain the epi­demic. Romero’s usual sym­pa­thies are for the indi­vid­ual con­science ham­strung by soul­less bureau­cra­cies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the mil­i­tary was the pri­mary source of con­flict, some indi­vid­u­als remained sym­pa­thetic. In The Cra­zies, Major Ryder (Harry Spill­man) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hol­lar) strug­gle as much against their supe­ri­ors’ coun­ter­pro­duc­tive orders as they do try­ing to pacify the cra­zies on the bat­tle­field and pro­tect the uninfected.

Even the civil­ians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMil­lan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Viet­nam War vet­er­ans who now find them­selves in oppo­si­tion to the insti­tu­tions they once served. They spend most of the movie com­pletely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into vio­lent con­flict more fre­quently with the mil­i­tary than with their now-insane for­mer friends and neighbors.

Romero also con­tin­ues his tra­di­tion of fore­ground­ing women and peo­ple of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Liv­ing Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizom­bie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Car­roll), a preg­nant nurse who ini­tially assists the military’s con­tain­ment efforts. Her char­ac­ter is far more sig­nif­i­cant and inte­gral to the plot than her equiv­a­lent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but per­haps unsur­pris­ing that a B-movie from 1973 would fea­ture a stronger fem­i­nist char­ac­ter than one from the 21st century.

George A. Romero's The CraziesLynn Lowry inau­gu­rates her career as a scream queen

But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was com­ing), the other pri­mary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impos­si­bly ethe­real and wil­lowy teen with a marked resem­blance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s pri­mary func­tion is to look inno­cently gor­geous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sex­ploita­tion films.

The Cra­zies is largely humor­less in tone, save for ironic music cues through­out. A per­sis­tent mar­tial snare drum plays under oth­er­wise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam argu­ing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes March­ing Home” accom­pa­nies sequences of desen­si­tized sol­diers sum­mar­ily exe­cut­ing detainees.

The estab­lish­ment of mar­tial law and mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of a town on Amer­i­can soil raise the ques­tion: how do you tell the dif­fer­ence between gen­uine resis­tance and mur­der­ous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shoot­ing other human beings by def­i­n­i­tion crazy, espe­cially when sys­tem­at­i­cally oper­ated by the gov­ern­men­tal and mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions that are sup­posed to pro­tect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immo­lates him­self on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmis­tak­able visual allu­sion to the Bud­dhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Viet­nam War. A sol­dier exe­cutes him. Was the priest protest­ing or Crazy? Was the sol­dier mer­ci­ful or Crazy?


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Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie poster

 

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine can be traced right back to its con­fused con­cep­tion, indeed begin­ning with its clumsy title. The ungainly pre­fix is clum­sily bolted on solely for it to alpha­bet­ize adja­cent to the three pre­vi­ous X-Men films on Wal­mart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and tor­rent track­ers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Ori­gins” brands it as part of a pro­posed series of pre­quels to the lucra­tive orig­i­nal tril­ogy (none else of which have yet to mate­ri­al­ize, appar­ently dis­carded in favor of the com­plete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolver­ine” promises a fresh new fran­chise in and of itself.

With the orig­i­nal tril­ogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no rea­son why a pre­quel fea­tur­ing honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jack­man as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feel­ing X-Men and X2: X-Men United were pre­ma­turely dis­carded. All of this is quite the pity, as direc­tor Bryan Singer’s inter­pre­ta­tion was far supe­rior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can under­stand the desire to cre­ate a jumping-on point for new view­ers, one that does not require a detailed mem­ory of the events of the pre­vi­ous install­ments. But if what 20th Cen­tury Fox and Mar­vel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The nar­ra­tive con­torts itself to slot into some of the estab­lished chronol­ogy, while simul­ta­ne­ously ignor­ing or con­tra­dict­ing many other sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: WolverineSabre­tooth and Wolver­ine demon­strate the proper pro­to­col in exe­cut­ing a man hug

Danny Hous­ton por­trays a younger ver­sion of William Stryker, a role orig­i­nated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a lit­tle more of his vil­lain­ous moti­va­tions and ties to Wolverine’s secret ori­gin, none of which really sur­prise or illu­mi­nate. Fans might be pleased by super­flu­ous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Pro­fes­sor X (a dig­i­tally reju­ve­nated Patrick Stew­art). Then there’s the mat­ter of Sabre­tooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s hench­man (Tyler Mane) in the orig­i­nal X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and recon­ceived as Logan’s brother Vic­tor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A pro­logue set in Canada’s North­west Ter­ri­to­ries in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s dam­aged psy­chol­ogy to be the prod­uct of frat­ri­cide. He and brother Vic­tor were doted upon by a wealthy adop­tive father, but their super­sti­tious bio­log­i­cal father wanted to kill them. The best sequence imme­di­ately fol­lows: an impres­sive mon­tage of the broth­ers fight­ing side-by-side through the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Viet­nam. The word­less sequence suc­cinctly illus­trates the immor­tal war­riors grow­ing apart, as Vic­tor becomes increas­ingly unsta­ble while Logan slowly devel­ops a moral code and dis­taste for killing.

A Wolver­ine film seemed like a promis­ing idea when I first heard of it; it could have pro­vided a neat way to shake off the detri­tus that had accu­mu­lated by the end of the orig­i­nal tril­ogy. Each sub­se­quent install­ment added too many addi­tional char­ac­ters drawn from decades of Mar­vel Comics his­tory, and quickly snow­balled to the point where the ensem­ble cast became com­i­cally unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one char­ac­ter sounded like a wise choice. But expect­ing a smart cre­ative choice from 20th Cen­tury Fox was obvi­ously too much. X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine is over­stuffed with a tremen­dous num­ber of X-Men b-listers, includ­ing The Blob (Kevin Durand), Dead­pool (Ryan Reynolds), Gam­bit (Tay­lor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Mon­aghan). The lat­ter, inci­den­tally, fea­tures in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key con­fronta­tion with Vic­tor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe Amaz­ing Adven­tures of the Uncanny C-List Char­ac­ters, com­ing soon from Mar­vel Comics

Worse than the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sup­port­ing char­ac­ters is its menagerie of vil­lains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film fea­tures a mud­dled array of ene­mies when just one well-developed vil­lain would have suited the story bet­ter. At least three mor­tal neme­ses align them­selves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabre­tooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book vil­lains are flam­boy­ant char­ac­ters intri­cately tied in with the ori­gins of the hero: Bat­man vs. The Joker (Jack Nichol­son, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Gob­lin (Willem Dafoe), and Super­man vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hack­man, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most seri­ous foe here is the lit­er­ally mute and expres­sion­less Weapon XI, devoid of char­ac­ter or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much bet­ter in print than spo­ken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the crit­i­cally respected film Tsotsi, mak­ing it unusu­ally finely pedi­greed for an escapist piece of enter­tain­ment based on kids’ comic books. Mar­vel Comics seems not to have learned its les­son from hand­ing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Ken­neth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Mar­vel would have been Warner Bros.’ dis­as­trous Inva­sion, from Oliver Hirsch­biegel, direc­tor of Down­fall. Both Inva­sion and X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine are some­how fatally bro­ken, to the point where they fail to make rudi­men­tary sense (which ought to be a base require­ment for pop­corn special-effects-driven block­busters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be inter­nally logical?

Stryker’s scheme sim­ply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evi­dently dis­sat­is­fied with his cre­ation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolver­ine). After what he per­ceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an osten­si­bly per­fect sol­dier with super­pow­ers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolver­ine under obser­va­tion by a fake girl­friend (Lynn Collins) for sev­eral years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his pow­ers with his super-syringe? Even more puz­zling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into sign­ing up to become Weapon X? Stryker suc­ceeds only in mak­ing an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe White Queen and Sil­ver­fox look wor­ried as they dash through some cor­ri­dor or some­thing, what­ever, who am I kid­ding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to tit­il­late the fanboys

The prob­lem with comic book super­hero sto­ries is that there’s a point at which your pow­er­ful pro­tag­o­nist becomes lit­er­ally inhu­man, and thus dif­fi­cult to find sym­pa­thetic or relat­able. The best exam­ple is Super­man, lit­er­ally an alien who can do almost any­thing. What kinds of prob­lems would such a crea­ture have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his neme­sis Vic­tor are both effec­tively immor­tal, so there is lit­tle at stake in their con­flict. The most inter­est­ing comic book super­heroes must rec­on­cile super­hu­man pow­ers with their deep flaws and anx­i­eties, like Spider-Man’s inse­cu­ri­ties and Daredevil’s dis­abil­ity, or are nor­mal human beings with extra­or­di­nary drive, like Bat­man and Iron Man.

A pirated ver­sion of X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine infa­mously leaked online before its offi­cial the­atri­cal release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted dam­age con­trol by claim­ing it was an unfin­ished workprint with place­holder CGI, sound effects, and titles. Accord­ing to the Los Ange­les Times, the ver­sion finally released in the­aters was report­edly almost iden­ti­cal, an embar­rass­ment to say the least.

The spe­cial effects are rather shoddy, espe­cially com­pared to the state of the art as seen in its con­tem­po­raries Star Trek and Trans­form­ers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bound­ing and pounc­ing suf­fer espe­cially from uncon­vinc­ing cheap­ness. The only two gen­uinely impres­sive excep­tions were wasted, to show­case sup­port­ing char­ac­ter Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slic­ing large struc­tures into geo­met­ric chunks.

Stray Obser­va­tions:

  • Two easter egg codas fol­low the cred­its. One is totally unnec­es­sary (Stryker’s fate is bet­ter left to the imag­i­na­tion), but the other is enjoy­ably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD fea­tures an anti-smoking Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ment, no doubt penance for Logan’s sig­na­ture cigar-chomping. But where are the warn­ings against drink­ing alco­hol, rid­ing motor­cy­cles with­out hel­mets, killing peo­ple with blades, and per­form­ing uneth­i­cal med­ical atrocities?
  • The script is a non­stop bar­rage of clichés: if I had sub­tracted one star for every time some­body utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rat­ing would be, well, a lot of neg­a­tive stars.

Offi­cial movie site: www.x-menorigins.com

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Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race movie poster

 

Death Race evi­dences a cyn­i­cal, shal­low, indis­crim­i­nate out­rage at… every­thing. In this future dystopia, the U.S. econ­omy col­lapsed in 2012, fol­lowed by soar­ing unem­ploy­ment, crime, and incar­cer­a­tion. Echo­ing Roller­ball and Run­ning Man, pro­fes­sional sport has merged with the penal sys­tem, pro­vid­ing both tele­vised enter­tain­ment and a jus­tice sys­tem in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key inci­dent that illus­trates the extent of this fallen soci­ety, the gov­ern­ment man­u­fac­tures a riot by shut­ting down a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant and lay­ing off all its work­ers. The incited riot­ers make con­ve­nient scape­goats for society’s short­com­ings, ulti­mately ben­e­fit­ting the gov­ern­ment. One of these inno­cent blue-collar labor­ers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a for­mer crook try­ing to make an hon­est liv­ing as a fam­ily man. Like his char­ac­ter Frank in the Trans­porter films, his crim­i­nal forte was dri­ving. Dri­ving very fast. Unjustly impris­oned at Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Franken­stein, a masked fic­ti­tious racer in the tit­u­lar Death Race. As with pro­fes­sional wrest­ing vil­lains and the Yan­kees, Franken­stein is a vil­lain per­fectly designed for the pub­lic to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Franken­stein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death RaceThis ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was orig­i­nally con­ceived as a higher-budgeted vehi­cle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was grad­u­ally down­graded to this video game pas­tiche helmed by Paul W.S. Ander­son. It’s a dubi­ous choice of source mate­r­ial, con­sid­er­ing that the orig­i­nal Death Race 2000 (1975), star­ring David Car­ra­dine and Sylvester Stal­lone, is one of the lesser-known apoc­a­lyp­tic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soy­lent Green, Roller­ball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade ear­lier. Car­ra­dine makes a voice cameo as the pre­vi­ous bearer of the Franken­stein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above point­ing out the crush­ingly obvi­ous, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist enter­tain­ments built upon bru­tal­ity, sex­ism, and shaky moral ambiva­lence. The osten­si­bly hell­ish Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary actu­ally appears rather chaste and peace­ful, mak­ing the sce­nario less dis­taste­ful to audi­ences. Rape is never a worry, and racially moti­vated con­flict is only faintly alluded to by the pres­ence of eth­nic gangs (white suprema­cists are obliquely referred to as “The Broth­er­hood”). The dri­vers’ copi­lots are “Nav­i­ga­tors” recruited from the neigh­bor­ing women’s prison. These stun­ning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to tit­il­late by the War­den (Joan Allen), in ser­vice of greater rat­ings. Speak­ing of, Ander­son misses an oppor­tu­nity to sat­i­rize tele­vised sport­ing events as well as The Wachowski Broth­ers’ Speed Racer or even Dodge­ball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death RaceGrav­i­tas or Botox?

Death Race is mind­lessly enter­tain­ing enough, until we’re asked to for­give unre­pen­tant mur­derer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gib­son) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is con­fused: given an unjust prison sys­tem that exploits the guilty and inno­cent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty pris­on­ers like Machine Gun Joe are so plen­ti­ful, why does the war­den have to go to the bother of fram­ing inno­cent peo­ple in the first place?

Statham sup­plies his usual per­sona of buff, terse, reluc­tant hero who has no time for girls (seri­ously, what is up with that? Trans­porter 2 even flirts with the notion his char­ac­ter Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre mis­cast­ing of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inex­pres­sive (lit­er­ally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the crim­i­nal waste of the pow­er­fully impos­ing Ian McShane. He was noth­ing less than awe­some in Dead­wood, bring­ing to life a crime lord more inter­est­ing than even Tony Soprano. McShane also ele­vated the short-lived TV series Kings, play­ing his part like he was in Shake­speare while every­one else was trapped in an ele­men­tary school play. But even he can’t do any­thing to res­cue this mess.


Offi­cial movie site: www.deathracemovie.net

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Lost: The End

Lost Season 6 poster

 

I’ve always been a Lost apol­o­gist, at least lik­ing the show even dur­ing its weak points. Six years of good­will very nearly went out the win­dow along with my tele­vi­sion, thanks to its extremely frus­trat­ing final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every lit­tle nig­gling mys­tery. I hoped to shield myself from dis­ap­point­ment, and let the cre­ators fin­ish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a sim­ple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every char­ac­ter arc need not end with a sud­den, bru­tal, arbi­trary death.

Carl­ton Cuse told Wired Mag­a­zine:

The great mys­ter­ies of life fun­da­men­tally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the res­o­lu­tion between the two time­lines is going to make peo­ple say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”

The lat­ter, pretty much. What fol­lows is just a taste of my cat­a­logue of com­plaints, with no con­cern for spoilers.

Matthew Fox in Lost

SPINNING (DONKEY) WHEELS

For a show built atop a per­pet­u­ally com­pound­ing series of mys­ter­ies and conun­drums, it failed to legit­i­mately advance or resolve much of any­thing in the run-up to the polar­iz­ing finale. With so lit­tle time left, the penul­ti­mate episodes wasted time spin­ning wheels in clas­sic Lost fash­ion. Peo­ple get­ting locked in cages, escap­ing, get­ting locked up again. Groups split­ting up, hik­ing to oppo­site ends of the island(s), split­ting up into dif­fer­ent groups and hik­ing back. Board­ing water­craft and dis­em­bark­ing again. Mean­while, the sheer num­ber of aban­doned mys­ter­ies filled its own wiki, and as usual, Col­lege­Hu­mor said it best:

BOOM!

From the very begin­ning, one of Lost’s favorite con­ceits was the sud­den death of char­ac­ters. To be gen­er­ous, death is rarely “mean­ing­ful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of ser­ial tele­vi­sion (actors quit, get fired, or age uncon­vinc­ingly). After the tenth or twen­ti­eth fatal­ity, I became sick of char­ac­ters get­ting sud­denly and arbi­trar­ily killed off for cheap shock. Past vic­tims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all vio­lently exit­ing the show before their sto­ry­lines reached any kind of res­o­lu­tion. In the final episodes, it hap­pened to Ilyana, Wid­more, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be sig­nif­i­cant as some­thing more than just can­non fod­der, but appar­ently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mys­ti­cally rein­car­nated as a soul­less killing machine, or was he merely con­vinced that he was essen­tially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mys­ti­cal brain­wash­ing? Just killing off a char­ac­ter isn’t any kind of a res­o­lu­tion to a storyline.

A pos­i­tive exam­ple from the show’s past would be Char­lie, a char­ac­ter whose death fig­ured into the mythol­ogy in a big way. It had ram­i­fi­ca­tions, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, some­body just sud­denly blew them­selves up with dyna­mite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another char­ac­ter the same way!

I was never so sen­ti­men­tal for Lost that I felt the need for every char­ac­ter to live hap­pily ever after. But didn’t these cre­ations deserve a lit­tle better?

John Terry in Lost

ACROSS THE SEA

Lit­tle of the mythol­ogy Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly con­tra­dicted my mem­o­ries of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbi­trary? It doesn’t mat­ter which of these last few sur­viv­ing can­di­dates will do it? And, for what­ever rea­son Jacob dis­qual­i­fies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other moth­ers also can­di­dates, for whom dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed cus­tody of Claire’s baby rather than hav­ing her own bio­log­i­cal child, I sup­pose. But if the audi­ence is asked to make too many strained sup­po­si­tions like this, based on lit­tle evi­dence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to won­der if the writ­ers have any idea themselves.

In the ear­lier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings peo­ple to the island to prove a point to him about human­ity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he sim­ply wants to find a replace­ment. Which is it? Both?

Jacob’s list of sev­eral hun­dred names even­tu­ally nar­rowed to a mere hand­ful of sur­vivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would hap­pen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has vol­un­teered, does that mean that the other few have to die?

Allison Janney in Lost

NARRATIVE CHEATING

It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by intro­duc­ing a totally new ele­ment, like the adop­tive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed char­ac­ter played by Alli­son Jan­ney). Imag­ine a mur­der mys­tery, in which the mur­derer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mys­tery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuf­fled puz­zle pieces the audi­ence hasn’t seen the solu­tion to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.

Which brings me to the glow­ing cave. If it’s really the key moti­vat­ing force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ulti­mate MacGuf­fin of the entire series. To not even so much as men­tion it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheat­ing to say the least.

Let me go back even fur­ther: I’m irri­tated alto­gether by the injec­tion of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black tech­ni­cally appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later asso­ciate with the Smoke Mon­ster), and we’ve been hear­ing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mys­tery of the show came down to a mys­ti­cal strug­gle between two char­ac­ters that have barely fea­tured on the show at all. It should be about the char­ac­ters already on the stage from the very begin­ning, not two cyphers intro­duced so late in the game.

And the final, cap­ping atroc­ity that would get any kid kicked out of high school cre­ative writ­ing class is, of course, the rev­e­la­tion that the final season’s mys­te­ri­ous “side­ways time­line” was actu­ally a kind of Limbo or Pur­ga­tory. That this is wildly unsat­is­fac­tory (the only thing worse could have been an end­ing in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, à la St. Else­where or Newhart) is over­shad­owed by the true crime: it’s explained via expo­si­tion by a minor char­ac­ter we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Chris­t­ian). Expo­si­tion! “Show don’t tell” is a clichéd rule, and rules ought to be bro­ken, but this case of telling not show­ing is evi­dence of con­tempt for the audience.

Com­pare and con­trast with the truly mind-blowing con­clu­sion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its word­less­ness is a sub­lime virtue, and its mys­ter­ies linger to pro­voke dis­cus­sion and fas­ci­na­tion decades later.

Michael Emmerson in Lost

BEN: A COMPLICATED GUY, OR LAZY WRITING?

I’m puz­zled by Ben’s appar­ent boomerang switcher from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to sup­pose he real­ized some­thing in the penul­ti­mate episode that the audi­ence just didn’t know yet. We nat­u­rally expect to share his real­iza­tion in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be any­thing there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only for­given for his crimes (remem­ber, he is a mass mur­derer), but given a lead­er­ship role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, inci­den­tally, cleans up good, am I right?).

It bugs me that I had to repeat­edly ask this ques­tion at each plot turn: was it lazy writ­ing, or part of the mystery?

Henry Ian Cusick in Lost

THE DESMOND ZAP

I’m very con­fused about how much the side­ways char­ac­ters remem­ber about their alter­nate time­lines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of déjà vu, but Hur­ley seems to have com­plete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, char­ac­ters need only touch each other for com­plete mem­o­ries to come flood­ing back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s mem­o­ries dur­ing all the years were mar­ried, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and con­ceived a son? Again, part of the mys­tery, or sloppy writing?

CITING SOURCES

Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest Dork Reporter Snark­bait.


Must read: Jason Kottke’s Lost finale roundup

Offi­cial Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Sea­son 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

The Pod People Film Festival

Wel­come to The Pod Peo­ple Film Fes­ti­val, The Dork Report’s third mini movie ret­ro­spec­tive. After catch­ing up with Rid­ley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adap­ta­tions of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatch­ers, plus one unof­fi­cial homage / satire.

  1. Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers (1956)
  2. Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers (1978)
  3. Body Snatch­ers (1993)
  4. The Fac­ulty (1998)
  5. The Inva­sion (2007)

The Invasion movie poster

 

Nicole Kid­man must be one of the unluck­i­est stars in Hol­ly­wood, hav­ing recently starred in at least two big-budget cat­a­stro­phes. Frank Oz’ The Step­ford Wives (2004) was sab­o­taged by cast mem­bers drop­ping out, exten­sive reshoots, and com­pet­ing script revi­sions that left sig­nif­i­cant log­i­cal plot holes in the fin­ished film. Sim­i­larly, Inva­sion is best described as quite sim­ply a bro­ken movie. One full year after the com­ple­tion of prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy under direc­tor Oliver Hirsch­biegel (Down­fall), pro­ducer Joel Sil­ver con­tracted Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer — read The Dork Report review) to write new scenes to be directed by their pro­tégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta — read The Dork Report review). Warner Bros. expended $10 mil­lion on 17 extra days of shoot­ing in an attempt to reshape what was report­edly a more inter­nal, psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense piece into more com­mer­cial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionDo you ever get the feel­ing that you’re in a ter­ri­ble movie…?

After a brief, promis­ing open­ing scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Inva­sion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shut­tle dis­in­te­grates on re-entry, car­ry­ing a pay­load of vir­u­lent spores bent on world dom­i­na­tion. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shut­tles Chal­lenger (1986) and Colum­bia (2003), this spec­tac­u­lar spe­cial effects sequence is about as taste­ful as watch­ing CGI sky­scrap­ers crumble.

One of the Wachowski’s late addi­tions was a ridicu­lously long car chase through the streets of Wash­ing­ton DC (filmed in Bal­ti­more), with psy­chi­a­trist Carol (Kid­man) behind the wheel of a lit­er­ally burn­ing Mus­tang. It’s beyond implau­si­ble that a shrink would have the dri­ving skills of a modern-day Bul­let (Steve McQueen) or Pop­eye O’Doyle (Gene Hack­man in The French Con­nec­tion). In fact, Kid­man dam­aged more than her career: she broke sev­eral ribs dur­ing an acci­dent incurred while shoot­ing the sequence.

The biggest prob­lem is not the clum­sily grafted-on action spec­ta­cle but the choppy screen­play. It’s painfully obvi­ous to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s orig­i­nal script, which one can infer would have made for a more sub­tle hor­ror story about an alien inva­sion accom­plished with­out bul­lets or the explod­ing of infra­struc­ture, and The Wachowski Broth­ers’ reduc­tion to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the sub­tle changes of her city’s daily rou­tine as the inva­sion spreads. It’s also inter­est­ing as she encoun­ters other unin­fected sur­vivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veron­ica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 ver­sion, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is appar­ently nat­u­rally immune. She coun­sels her to pre­tend to be a Step­ford Wife in order to avoid detec­tion by the dis­pas­sion­ate alien intel­li­gences that have taken over most of the pop­u­la­tion. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion“Our world is a bet­ter world”

A huge chunk feels miss­ing from the mid­dle; the sec­ond act should be a slow dis­cov­ery of the details of the inva­sion and a grad­ual esca­la­tion of the con­flict. But Carol and her doc­tor para­mour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accu­rate con­clu­sion of an alien inva­sion based on only a few observed cases of mild weird­ness around them, clear­ing the rest of the movie’s run­ning time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another crim­i­nal mis­use of poor Jef­frey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a bril­liant actor sad­dled with most of the script’s laugh­able tech­nob­a­b­ble that leaves no room to the imag­i­na­tion (the orig­i­nal 1956 Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers was arguably not spe­cific enough, but the 1978 ver­sion found just the right level of gory detail with­out get­ting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s clas­sic sci-fi novel The Body Snatch­ers has been adapted over and over into movies that illu­mi­nate the con­cerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 orig­i­nal was a thinly-veiled cri­tique of McCarthy­ism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Water­gate era. Abel Fer­rara applied the metaphor to blind obe­di­ence and con­for­mity in the mil­i­tary in his 1993 Body Snatch­ers. Robert Rodríguez found the most per­fect set­ting yet, as he sat­i­rized teen peer pres­sure in high school in The Fac­ulty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatch­ers tale mean today? Inva­sion is the fourth ver­sion of novel, and the sec­ond to ditch the notion of replace­ment bod­ies. As in The Fac­ulty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like par­a­sites that take over human bod­ies with­out per­ma­nently harm­ing them. Inva­sion makes a fleet­ing ref­er­ence to other nations pub­licly com­bat­ing the alien insur­gents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the oppo­site intended effect, only fur­ther enabling the inva­sion to suc­ceed. Inva­sion might have been a bet­ter film if it had focused more on this glim­mer of polit­i­cal satire than on Shut­tle dis­as­ters and burn­ing Mustangs.


Offi­cial movie site: http://theinvasionmovie.warnerbros.com/

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Transporter 3

Transporter 3 movie poster

 

Trans­porter 3, pro­duced by Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Mega­ton, is an inter­na­tional prod­uct tai­lored for the Amer­i­can mar­ket. Despite its French locales, Ger­man cars, and adorably freck­led Ukrain­ian hot­tie, the hero and vil­lain are both quite Amer­i­can. The tit­u­lar Trans­porter is Frank Mar­tin (Jason Statham), a fighter and dri­ver par excel­lence who earns a lux­u­ri­ous but lonely exis­tence as an ask-no-questions courier. The events of his two pre­vi­ous mis­ad­ven­tures have reformed his amoral ways and loner habits, as evi­denced by his col­lab­o­ra­tive friend­ship with for­mer neme­sis Inspec­tor Tar­coni (François Berléand).

So in order for there to even be a Trans­porter 3, its plot must cor­ral this reformed man into a caper full of oppor­tu­ni­ties for car­nage and law­break­ing. The vil­lain­ous Amer­i­can John­son (Robert Knep­per) is con­ceived as Martin’s evil, less evolved twin: a mer­ce­nary like him, but unleav­ened by con­science. His ill-defined plan involves black­mail­ing Ukran­ian politi­cian Leonid Vasilev (Jeroen Krabbe) into allow­ing a giant cor­po­ra­tion to import a tanker full of bar­rels of toxic waste. At one point Mar­tin is men­aced by a truck full of the stuff on land, but the tanker hasn’t docked yet. Confusing.

Natalya RudakovaNatalya Rudakova in Trans­porter 3

Statham is this generation’s Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal. He’s already been type­cast as the tough loner in a con­stant series of b-movies (some more B than oth­ers, but The Bank Job is a step up), but usu­ally light­ens things up with a hint of Jackie Chan-esque self-deprecation. He’s impec­ca­bly tai­lored, lean, and fero­ciously fit, look­ing and mov­ing more like a gym­nast than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of slow-moving body­builder action heroes. A good drink­ing game for any Statham film is to drink a shot every time his shirt comes off. You’re likely to get alco­hol poi­son­ing in this case.

One of the rea­sons I enjoy pro­ducer Luc Besson’s Trans­porter fran­chise is that I dis­like being expected to applaud the typ­i­cal movie action hero that stands back and shoots bad guys from afar. This applies to pretty much any Stal­lone and Schwarzeneg­ger film, but is also true of even James Bond (in which his fabled license to kill often trans­lates into mow­ing down rooms full of extras with machine gun fire — or in the case of Moon­raker, laser pis­tols) and Indi­ana Jones (audi­ences applaud him for shoot­ing a scimitar-wielding bad­die in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but really, is that fair?). In stark con­trast, Mar­tin almost never uses any weapon other than his own phys­i­cal­ity. Most of the vio­lence in the Trans­porter films is in the acro­batic, blood­less rock ‘em sock ‘em style of kung-fu flicks, lib­er­ally sea­soned with impres­sive auto­mo­bile car­nage. The first few min­utes of Trans­porter 3 fea­ture a sig­na­ture sequence in which Mar­tin dis­patches a room full of armed bad­dies using no tools save his own suit jacket. But I was star­tled to see Mar­tin actu­ally exe­cute a few evil­do­ers later in the film, some­thing I don’t recall him doing in the pre­vi­ous two. It’s wholly out of char­ac­ter, and spoils the fun.

Jason Statham in Transporter 3It’s never long before Jason Statham’s shirt comes off

What dooms Trans­porter 3 to be the worst of the fran­chise is that there are sim­ply not enough action sequences, and what few there are are unin­spired. I recall only two more notable action sequences: in one, Mar­tin is teth­ered to his car by an explo­sive device (just roll with it), and must catch up to it on foot after it is stolen. Later, he launches it off a bridge onto the top of a speed­ing train, and then from there smashes it into the body of a detached pas­sen­ger car. For a movie so con­cerned with car chases, prod­uct it doesn’t help the audi­ence when most of the vehi­cles are dic­tated by prod­uct place­ment to be the same brand (Audi) and color (black with tinted windows).

The awk­ward, eyebrow-raising end­ing to Trans­porter 2 left it up in the air as to whether Mar­tin is gay or just an extreme loner. Sur­pris­ingly, Trans­porter 3 actu­ally revives that ques­tion and makes it its key sub­ject. When Vasilev’s hot freck­led daugh­ter Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) comes on to him, Mar­tin protests he’s “not in the mood” but cer­tainly, absolutely, pos­i­tively, no way no how, def­i­nitely not gay, how could you even ask, good grief. Well, that set­tles that ques­tion, in an rather dis­ap­point­ingly con­ven­tional man­ner. So the end of the film finds Mar­tin not only recon­firmed as a good guy, but also in a steady het­ero­sex­ual rela­tion­ship. A key com­po­nent of both the James Bond and Jason Bourne char­ac­ters is that their great­est loves were mur­dered, so they choose to be emphat­i­cally alone. Where can Besson take Frank Mar­tin in another sequel? Don’t expect Valentina to last long into Trans­porter 4.


Offi­cial movie site: www.transporter3film.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory movie poster

 

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cin­ema pro­duc­tions made while still a semi-autonomous com­pany, before being evis­cer­ated by par­ent com­pany Warner Bros. in 2008. For the mor­bidly curi­ous, Van­ity Fair recently related the sad tale in its lat­est Hol­ly­wood issue. Dis­claimer: I worked for New Line Cin­ema through its end times, but had absolutely noth­ing to do with actu­ally mak­ing or mar­ket­ing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employ­ees thought about the artis­tic merit of their prod­uct anyway.

For still undis­closed rea­sons, Pride and Glory was com­pleted in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Direc­tor Gavin O’Connor (Tum­ble­weeds) pub­licly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in par­tic­u­lar) for bury­ing his movie. Stars Edward Nor­ton and Colin Far­rel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly dis­ap­pointed but yet more under­stand­ing (per­haps these sea­soned actors were more jaded, and unsur­prised by stu­dio machi­na­tions). New Line coun­tered that the slid­ing release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ com­pet­ing projects from dif­fer­ent stu­dios. It was even­tu­ally sched­uled for March 2008, but not actu­ally released until late 2008.

Colin Farrel and Ed Norton in Pride and GloryColin’s a bent copper

This atten­tion helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie afi­ciona­dos that couldn’t resist the bait: a scan­dalous tale of a sup­pressed mas­ter­piece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is a god-awful, depress­ing, point­less mess of a movie. Actu­ally, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a tech­ni­cal stand­point. Not to go out of my way to defend the stu­dio, but it now seems likely there was no actual con­spir­acy to bury a mis­un­der­stood mas­ter­piece. Per­haps New Line sim­ply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, fig­ure out how to mar­ket it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside dur­ing the stress of the immi­nent destruc­tion of the entire com­pany. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to real­ize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also con­tribut­ing to the aura of con­tro­versy was the bun­gled film­ing of a police funeral scene at the actual cer­e­mony for New York City offi­cer Eric Her­nan­dez, acci­den­tally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The pro­duc­tion report­edly promised the fam­ily they would be respect­ful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clum­sily intruded on the sen­si­tive affair. Hav­ing seen the com­pleted scene, I don’t see any rea­son why it couldn’t have been effec­tively staged with a com­ple­ment of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was writ­ten by broth­ers Gavin and Gre­gory O’Connor. As the sons of a police offi­cer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Depart­ment. If their film is sup­posed to be a trib­ute to hon­est cops, its cor­rup­tion plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fic­tional cor­rupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gra­da­tions of char­ac­ter or moti­va­tion. Jimmy Egan (Far­rel) and a clutch of fel­low cops have been skim­ming money off drug busts for years, and have grad­u­ated to mur­der and sell­ing drugs them­selves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tier­ney (Nor­ton) finds him­self in a posi­tion where he could turn Egan in. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, Tierney’s pop Fran­cis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Fran­cis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line exec­u­tive Toby Emmerich, and type­cast as a cop after his role in Lit­tle Chil­dren) are also in the force. Fran­cis Jr. also knows about the cor­rup­tion, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his fam­ily but the New York Police Depart­ment itself. But events con­spire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to set­tle their per­sonal griev­ances as two stereo­typ­i­cal movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and GloryCheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I sus­pect O’Connor had pre­ten­sions to mak­ing another L.A. Con­fi­den­tial, but his result doesn’t mea­sure up to the stan­dards of such a supe­rior film noir. Note the super­fi­cial resem­blances: police cor­rup­tion, drugs, fam­ily pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems com­plex, but is actu­ally stupid-simple. Expo­si­tion scenes basi­cally lay out the plot quite early, drain­ing any sense of mys­tery or sus­pense. The dia­logue is pep­pered with a tor­rent of names that are chal­leng­ing for the audi­ence to con­nect with faces, a tech­nique that pro­vides only a super­fi­cial com­plex­ity to a sim­ple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humor­less, and devoid of any human emo­tion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The clas­sic film noir ele­ment most notably lack­ing in this boy’s club pro­duc­tion is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely fig­ure into the plot. The most sig­nif­i­cant female char­ac­ter is cancer-stricken Abby (Jen­nifer Ehle), whose sole pur­pose in the plot seems to be to human­ize hus­band Fran­cis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimil­i­tude of the tele­vi­sion series The Wire, sim­i­larly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cul­tures. Now is as good a time as any to state that The Dork Report does not apol­o­gize for tak­ing advan­tage of any oppor­tu­nity what­so­ever to evan­ge­lize The Wire.

The set­ting is a ver­sion of New York City that may or may not actu­ally exist. In fact, there’s an unusual dis­claimer before the end cred­its stat­ing its char­ac­ters and events are totally fic­tional. Obvi­ously, if there was an actual case of such mas­sive cor­rup­tion in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the cred­its, there’s yet another dis­claimer I’ve never seen before, stat­ing that no one con­nected with the pro­duc­tion took any money to pro­mote the use of tobacco prod­ucts. This Dork Reporter don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influ­en­tial in this way. Granted, movies are a pow­er­ful art­form, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of soci­ety are real prob­lems that require com­plex solu­tions, but cen­sor­ing movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for right­eous fools to believe they are com­bat­ing a prob­lem. Where’s the cor­re­spond­ing worry that lit­tle kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be cor­rupt cops?


Offi­cial movie site: www.prideandglorymovie.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 4: Land of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Wel­come to The George A. Romero Zom­bie Cycle Film Fes­ti­val. Join The Dork Report in revis­it­ing all five canon­i­cal episodes in the orig­i­nal epic zom­bie saga:

Land of the Dead movie poster

 

George A. Romero’s spo­radic zom­bie flicks are some­times decades apart in pro­duc­tion, but nev­er­the­less form a chrono­log­i­cal sequence telling the story of the down­fall of soci­ety from every angle. Night of the Liv­ing Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few ran­dom civil­ians trapped in a farm­house. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a lit­tle to see what’s going on in cities and sub­ur­bia, and Day of the Dead (1985) exam­ines a final remain­ing pocket of sur­vivors months into the plague. Land of the Dead opens some time after the zom­bie epi­demic has swept the world, and the sur­viv­ing dregs of human­ity have retreated behind the for­ti­fied walls of the ulti­mate gated com­mu­nity, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zom­bie films to satir­i­cally artic­u­late some social com­men­tary, and here his tar­gets seem to be big busi­ness and class war­fare. Another pos­si­ble alle­gor­i­cal tar­get is the Israel / Pales­tine con­flict. Have humans walled the zom­bies out, or walled them­selves in?

A man named Kauf­man (Den­nis Hop­per) has set him­self up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kauf­man is very much a busi­ness­man along the lines of Don­ald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big busi­ness with total­i­tar­i­an­ism. Kaufman’s machi­na­tions ensure that his sup­posed safe haven is actu­ally a highly tiered class soci­ety. The rich live in high-rise com­fort while the under­classes starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know soci­ety is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.

Eugene Clark in George A. Romero's Land of the Deadwet zom­bies smell like wet, uh, zombies

In the world out­side, the zom­bies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have noth­ing left to do but stand around. Despite the big bud­get, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old rou­tines: work­ing gas sta­tions, push­ing shop­ping carts, and bang­ing tam­bourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zom­bies instinc­tu­ally drawn to the shop­ping mall (a new Amer­i­can inno­va­tion at the time) like pil­grims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead Goes fur­ther and sug­gests they have even greater pow­ers of logic, and can feel actual emo­tions such as vic­tim­iza­tion. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soul­ful and sym­pa­thetic like Bub the zom­bie from Day of the Dead.

Kauf­man sends min­ions Riley (Nathan Fil­lon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested waste­lands, in car­a­vans of heav­ily armored vehi­cles. They dis­tract the “stench” (the deroga­tory term of choice for the undead) with fire­works as they loot for food and valu­ables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their rela­tion­ship pro­vides the one gen­uinely funny bit of dia­logue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the per­pet­u­ally dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse prob­lems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.

The intel­li­gent zom­bies, appar­ently feel­ing dis­en­fran­chised, orga­nize and mount an attack on the city. Any­way, Riley and Cholo finally become dis­il­lu­sioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daugh­ter of Dario Argento, who col­lab­o­rated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imag­ined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodg­ing the draft and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal over­lords). In true Romero fash­ion, the vil­lain­ous Kauf­man also hap­pens to be a racist, shout­ing epi­thets at the zomb­i­fied Cholo (John Leguizom­bie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human his­tory when race will have truly become irrel­e­vant, this ought to be it.

Dennis Hopper in George A. Romeros' Land of the DeadDen­nis Hop­per as the mayor from hell, or is that the mayor OF hell?

I don’t think Romero and his zom­bie films would be remem­bered with­out the racially charged end­ing of Night of the Liv­ing Dead and the pointed satire of con­sumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with some­thing as unfo­cused as Land of the Dead, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Par­al­lax view he didn’t fully work out the anal­ogy: “I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was wor­ried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the ter­ror­ists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zom­bies? And it gave me a lit­tle pause, but we had to start shoot­ing because we had the money. I’m being per­fectly hon­est, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and fig­ure it out. Some­times you just run on instinct.” Even the round­table of hor­ror afi­ciona­dos on InternalBleeding.net agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”

Land of the Dead obvi­ously has the biggest bud­get of all of Romero’s zom­bie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only super­fi­cially “bet­ter” than its pre­de­ces­sors, fea­tur­ing big­ger names and more tech­no­log­i­cal pol­ish. As is the case with many a Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion, raised finan­cial stakes bring a low­er­ing of stan­dards and dimin­ish­ing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” pro­logue mon­tage illus­trates for the slower mem­bers of the audi­ence what zom­bies are all about. Per­haps the movie stu­dio exec­u­tives were pitch­ing the film to audi­ences beyond the usual hor­ror genre ghetto already versed with the zom­bie genre.


Offi­cial movie site: www.landofthedeadmovie.net

Homepageofthedead.com’s exten­sive archive of Land of the Dead info

Must read: The Light That Failed: George Romero’s Dead Rock On by Kath­leen Mur­phy; and George Romero Sur­veys the Dead by Sean Axmaker, both on Par­al­lax View

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 3: Day of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Wel­come to The George A. Romero Zom­bie Cycle Film Fes­ti­val. Join The Dork Report in revis­it­ing all five canon­i­cal episodes in the orig­i­nal epic zom­bie saga:

Day of the Dead movie poster

 

Day of the Dead (1985) is the third episode in George A. Romero’s con­tin­u­ing tale of civilization’s col­lapse in the event of a global zom­bie epi­demic. This and the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005) are tied for the worst entries in the series. What makes the first two (Night and Dawn) of merit is their sur­pris­ingly acute social satire, but here Romero loses his crit­i­cal focus in favor of gore and gen­eral unpleas­antry with lit­tle redeem­ing value.

After the ini­tial wave of undead in Night of the Liv­ing Dead and the col­lapse of cities and sub­ur­bia in Dawn of the Dead, Romero now jumps still for­ward in time. Sev­eral months into the zom­bie plague, a dozen humans hud­dle iso­lated in an under­ground bunker. Their fortress is suf­fi­cient to pro­tect them from the bar­bar­ians out­side the gates, but they have lost radio con­tact with the out­side world. They make occa­sional sor­ties to nearby cities via heli­copter, but encounter noth­ing but more hordes of zom­bies. For all they know, they are the last humans on the planet.

Lori Cardille in Day of the DeadWhen there’s no more room in hell, zom­bies will break through the sty­ro­foam walls

The dis­parate batch of sur­vivors in Night of the Liv­ing dead was essen­tially a cross-section of civ­i­liza­tion, but Romero nar­rows his focus here onto the mil­i­tary and sci­en­tific worlds. The humans trapped under­ground include three sci­en­tists, two civil­ians, and seven sol­diers. All of them are slowly los­ing their minds save for level-headed sci­en­tist Dr. Sarah Bow­man (Lori Cardille), valiantly research­ing a cure. As is now cus­tom­ary in Romero’s zom­bie flicks, Sarah is an atyp­i­cal pro­tag­o­nist for a hor­ror movie. The most capa­ble and sane char­ac­ter in Night of the Liv­ing Dead was a black man (Duane Jones), a huge deal for movies of any genre in 1968, and still rare now. Sarah is a woman, another social group his­tor­i­cally sub­ju­gated by soci­ety, not to men­tion typ­i­cally reduced to scream­ing eye candy in hor­ror movies.

The nerve-wracking 28 Days Later (2002), direc­tor Danny Boyle’s con­tri­bu­tion to the zom­bie genre, bor­rowed this sce­nario of an iso­lated batch of male sol­diers act­ing with­out com­mand, sur­rounded on all sides by hos­tile forces, and locked in a fortress with only one woman. Not sur­pris­ingly, things get ugly. To a one, the sol­diers are despi­ca­bly racist and illog­i­cal. But leader Cap­tain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is actu­ally cor­rect about one key fact of their sit­u­a­tion: the head sci­en­tist they have been ordered to defer to is indeed totally mad. Dr. Matthew “Franken­stein” Logan (Richard Lib­erty) is more inter­ested in domes­ti­cat­ing zom­bies into slaves than he is in either cur­ing (as Sarah is try­ing to do) or erad­i­cat­ing them (as, nat­u­rally, the sol­diers would have it). His star lab rat is a cap­tive zom­bie dubbed Bub (Sher­man Howard). The chained and tor­tured Bob is sur­pris­ingly sym­pa­thetic, pos­si­bly even moreso than hero­ine Sarah. He’s also the first instance in Romero’s movies of an intel­li­gent, self-aware breed of zom­bie we won’t see again until twenty years later in Land of the Dead. But nei­ther film makes much of the con­cept of zom­bies as a new life form, as opposed to the clas­sic remorse­less adver­sary typ­i­cal for the genre.

Sherman Howard in Day of the DeadBub Zom­bie wants his MTV

As dis­cussed in The Dork Report’s review of Night of the Liv­ing Dead, one key aspect of the zom­bie genre that has fueled its con­tin­u­ing appeal over the years is that a plague is a great lev­eler. Every­one is vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease. Every­one is equal after death (or is that undeath?), be they male or female, rich or poor, of any race. And for the sur­vivors, once soci­ety breaks down (and it always does when the undead walk the streets), all the money and crea­ture com­forts in the world become irrelevant.


Must read: Home­page of the Dead’s com­plete Day of the Dead archives, includ­ing the orig­i­nal script

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster

 

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extra­or­di­nary to watch. As with their break­through The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feel­ing that you’re see­ing some­thing new; not just emer­gent tech­nolo­gies but a whole new style of moviemak­ing. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why under­take such huge effort and expense just to repli­cate the essence of a poorly writ­ten and cheaply ani­mated TV series that no one, not even the geeki­est Japan­ese animé otaku (fan­boy), really misses? This film might have been so much bet­ter if they had jet­ti­soned the bag­gage of the intel­lec­tual prop­erty (a mis­nomer in this case) and told an orig­i­nal story in this rad­i­cal new style.

The movie incar­na­tion of Speed Racer has inher­ited the visual quirks of the orig­i­nal 1960s car­toon, cross-bred with the information-rich com­put­er­ized motion graph­ics of mod­ern tele­vised sports. The color scheme is dom­i­nated by bright, pri­mary col­ors like War­ren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before com­puter graph­ics and dig­i­tal color grad­ing). Talk­ing heads lat­er­ally pan across the screen, usu­ally redun­dantly nar­rat­ing the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watch­ing ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also mod­eled after video games and Japan­ese animé in gen­eral. Huge sequences are entirely com­puter gen­er­ated, with what lit­tle live action pho­tog­ra­phy there is most likely shot against green­screen sound­stages. The Wachowskis’ res­i­dent spe­cial effects mad sci­en­tist John Gaeta metic­u­lously stages the many incred­i­ble car chases like bat­tles in a war movie from an alter­nate uni­verse. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars pre­quel trilo­gies, the movie prac­ti­cally is ani­mated. Just watch­ing it, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every sin­gle line of dia­log is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car dri­ver, a lone hon­est man in a cor­rupt indus­try. Yes, his name is actu­ally Mr… Speed… Racer. His dis­graced older brother Rex died a mys­ti­fy­ing death years before, pro­vid­ing Speed with the moti­va­tion to prove him­self both as a dri­ver and as an hon­est man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Saran­don and John Good­man) some­times appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoy­ing lit­tle brother with a Brook­lyn accent and, god help us all, a mon­key. The odd­ball extended Racer fam­ily also includes the Aus­tralian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s heli­copter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endear­ing baby fat and now seems star­tlingly skinny). The whole gang appar­ently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the liv­ing room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehic­u­lar vari­ety, the Wachowskis wisely scat­ter about a few awe­some wire-fu fight sequences designed (appar­ently not designed by The Matrix’s genius chore­o­g­ra­pher Woo-ping Yuen). The most excit­ing and visu­ally impres­sive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow pro­vid­ing manga–like motion lines (a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Japan­ese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Good­man gets in on the act, and one under­stands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for rea­sons other than a big stu­dio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audi­ences world­wide, Emile Hirsch is a lit­tle over­whelmed by the visuals

If I were to sin­gle out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suf­fers, like Richard Kelly’s South­land Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much back­story. Over­long for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adver­saries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop­star Rain) to accom­plish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injus­tice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has some­thing to do with vet­eran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remem­ber details after two-plus hours of sheer sen­sory over­load? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dan­gling (mostly involv­ing the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypo­thet­i­cal third episode.

For any num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons, this very expen­sive folly bombed and we almost cer­tainly won’t see that tril­ogy. The Wachowski broth­ers were per­ceived to have fum­bled the wildly pop­u­lar Matrix fran­chise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minor­ity opin­ion that the sec­ond, The Matrix Reloaded, is actu­ally their mas­ter­piece), they pro­duced the thick­headed V for Vendetta (mud­dy­ing up and widely miss­ing the point of the pow­er­ful anar­chist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not sur­pris­ing that the moviego­ing pub­lic, even the genre-loving fan­boys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the orig­i­nal Speed Racer car­toon is excep­tion­ally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embar­rass­ment by issu­ing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crap­pi­est movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc pack­age padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added mate­r­ial. There’s noth­ing at all on the DVD about the obvi­ously ground­break­ing spe­cial effects. Instead, the film­mak­ers decided that what audi­ences wanted was more mon­key (the vile beastie stars in the clos­ing cred­its sequence) and more annoy­ing kid brother (who costars in a mock­men­tary fea­ture with an embar­rass­ingly poorly acted appear­ance by pro­ducer Joel Silver).


Offi­cial movie site: speedracerthemovie.warnerbros.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.