Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)

Thanks to the success of Scream in 1996, horror movies were suddenly cool again during the second half of the '90s. Studios couldn't crank out their latest teen-oriented scary movies fast enough. And unlike today, where they probably would have just made a few remakes, Hollywood toyed with the idea of sequels. And not just new entries in long-running franchises, either. I mean digging old movies out of the mothballs and giving them sequels.

There were only two of them that I'm aware of, though. One was An American Werewolf in Paris, a sequel that came sixteen years after John Landis's lycanthropic adventures in London. Another was a sequel I'm sure nobody saw coming, The Rage: Carrie 2. How do you make a sequel to a movie where practically every character — including the one the movie was named after — died at the end? But somebody actually did it, and I guess I'll have to review it.

Twenty years have passed since Carrie White wreaked havoc upon her high school prom. The story's become something of a local urban legend, but is still fresh in the mind of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), the sole survivor of that fateful night. She's become a guidance counselor in those twenty years, devoting herself to helping troubled kids to atone for her inability to help Carrie.

She is quickly drawn to Rachel Lang (Emily Bergl), a teenage misfit with a very tiny circle of friends. That circle sadly gets a little tinier, though, when Rachel's best friend Lisa (Mena Suvari) commits suicide after learning that the boy she'd given her virginity to, popular football player Eric Stark (Zachary Ty Bryan), only slept with her as part of a cruel game where he and his teammates rack up points for their sexual conquests.

When Rachel rats Eric out, he and his teammates begins planning their revenge. The only one who abstains from this plot is Jesse Ryan (Jason London), a handsome jock who has taken a liking to Rachel. She reciprocates his feelings, but the hassling she gets from Jesse's teammates starts amplifying the telekinetic abilities that Rachel began to display after Lisa's suicide.

Sue witnesses an instance of Rachel's ability in action and immediately compares her to Carrie. But Sue's attempts to take Rachel under her wing are rebuffed as she and Jesse's relationship heats up. And things begin looking up when the football players seem to change their minds about her and welcome her into their group. They even invite her to a party, but only to humiliate her and make her believe that Jesse was using her as part of their game. An infuriated Rachel lets loose with her telekinesis, turning the party into a massacre.

There's been a ton of unnecessary, unwarranted sequels over the years, but few are as egregious as The Rage: Carrie 2. Brian De Palma's Carrie had no real loose ends to tie up, nothing to follow up on. There's no reason for this sequel to even exist beyond a simple cash grab. But believe it or not, it's not a bad movie. It is, however, unbearably mediocre. If I had to guess, I'd imagine the problem with it is that it had to be a Carrie sequel. The original movie is an absolute classic, a movie so good that there is absolutely no way anyone could do a worthy follow-up.

But I'll give credit where credit is due and say that it's apparent director Katt Shea wants to make a respectable go of it. Unfortunately, her work isn't quite as impressive as I imagine she thought it'd be. There are a few instances of some very well-done cinematography, but the majority of the movie feels like the same generic style that a lot of the horror movies from the period shared. And then there's those times where Shea decides she wants to be a little artsy by throwing in some grainy, black and white, stereotypical "independent movie from the '90s" shots into the moments where Rachel briefly loses control of her telekinesis. It doesn't really add anything to the movie, and can actually take you out of the movie a little bit. Shea is at least trying something a little different, though, so I can't really fault her for that.

Where the movie starts falling apart is the screenplay by Rafael Moreu. For the most part, the script is just a really bad remake of Carrie with practically nothing that would qualify it as a sequel. Yeah, Moreu threw the character of Sue Snell in there. But Sue is pretty much a non-factor for the entire movie. Her subplot is utterly pointless and accomplishes absolutely nothing. All it does is add a laughable and unneeded plot revelation — that Carrie and Rachel are half-sisters — while completely wasting our time. And the fact that Sue is casually disposed of the second she arrives at the site of Rachel's fiery rampage further cements just how useless the whole thing was.

But the worst flaw with the screenplay is how it's just a poor retread of Carrie. In the first movie, you genuinely believed that Carrie's life was awful and that her vengeful wrath against her classmates was a long time coming. But the cruelty that Carrie suffered at the hands of her mother and peers is nowhere to be found here. Outside of her friend's suicide and her foster father smacking her once in a while, all that really happens to Rachel is a mean-spirited prank that I doubt would spark a homicidal rage in most people. Rachel suffered nowhere near the level of appalling abuse from her family and peers that Carrie did, which only makes her roaring rampage of revenge seem less inspired.

I also had a hard time buying Rachel as the mousy, abused outcast that Carrie was. While it's probably the fault of the casting department, since they didn't really paint the super-cute Emily Bergl as having the potential for an "ugly duckling to beautiful swan" transformation that Sissy Spacek had. You could just argue that Rachel just runs in different social circles than the cool kids. Rachel simply didn't strike me as the beset-upon wallflower that Carrie was. Sorry, Carrie 2, I just wasn't feeling it.

But at least the cast wasn't too bad. I especially liked Emily Bergl, who I thought was very likable in the lead role. Bergl is believable and convincing, even if I did previously question the reasoning behind Rachel's eventual snapping. I also liked the chemistry she had with Jason London, who I felt contributed a sweet, genuine performance.

Amy Irving, on the other hand, didn't contribute anything at all. Just like her subplot, Irving brought nothing to the table and the movie wouldn't be any greater or poorer had her scenes been deleted. And bringing up the rear are Dylan Bruno and Zachary Ty Bryan, who play two of the most unlikable douchebags ever captured on film. Considering how loathsome they are and are supposed to be, I guess I could say that Bruno and Bryan did the best jobs they could.

The Rage: Carrie 2 is a sequel that probably shouldn't have been made. It would have made a serviceable standalone movie, but it isn't. All we've got is a lame sequel that just wanted to piggyback on a classic. It's a failure as a sequel, but on its own merits, I can really only give it two stars. And you know what? If the makers of this movie had waited a decade, the movie would have probably been one of those forgotten direct-to-DVD sequels that come out all the time nowadays.

Final Rating: **

Carrie (1976)

Of all the names that have been associated with the horror genre in its various mediums over the years, few are as immediately recognizable as Stephen King. Author of some of the most memorable scary stories of all time, King has long been one of the biggest names in horror literature.

But everybody has to start somewhere, and for King, his start came in 1974 with Carrie. The first of his books to see publication, Carrie initially flew under the cultural radar. But it climbed up the best-seller chart when the cinematic adaptation of it was released in 1976. The movie was a huge success, both financially and critically. It even earned two Oscar nominations for its acting. And though parts of it are a little dated nowadays, Carrie is still a damn fine movie that I'd definitely call one of the best horror movies I've ever seen.

It's hard not to feel sorry for poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). The daughter of an abusive religious fanatic (Piper Laurie), Carrie's social awkwardness makes her a target for merciless teasing from her classmates. But just when Carrie thinks life can't get much worse, she gets her first period while showering after gym class. Thanks to her strict, sheltered upbringing, Carrie has no idea what's happening and believes she's bleeding to death.

Her classmates take great humor from Carrie's panicked cries for help, throwing tampons and heaping insults upon her. The scene is only broken up when Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the gym teacher, intervenes. Feeling guilty for her part in what happened, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) tries to make amends with Carrie by convincing her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom and show her a good time.

But they are unaware of the plans of Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), whose extreme lack of remorse for having teased Carrie gets her banned from the prom by Miss Collins. Instead of trying to apologize to Carrie, Chris instead wants revenge for being punished. She rigs the ballot to get Carrie elected prom queen, and dumps a bucket of pig blood over her head during the coronation. No one could have predicted, though, that this prank would fully trigger Carrie's burgeoning telekinetic powers, an ability that sparks a violent, bloody rampage.

It's been thirty-five years since Carrie was released, and even now it's still as good now as it was then. The movie is an amazing piece of cinema, a horror movie that others should strive to be like. It actually makes me proud to be a fan of the genre. It's an actual, legitimate work of art that I can hold up to a doubter and say, "This is why horror movies kick ass." But I could be here all day saying it's great, so let's go ahead and jump into this review, okay?

At the helm is Brian De Palma, who had previously stuck with just low-budget independent movies. Hiring him proved to be a brilliant idea, because De Palma has crafted what has to be one of the best adaptations of King's work. De Palma's direction feels evocative of Alfred Hitchcock, with the way he uses the cinematography and screeching violin music to punctuate the more tense moments. And there are many scenes where I felt De Palma was building something of a dream-like state for the movie to exist in, an almost peaceful feeling that makes the bullying and the use of Carrie's powers more nightmarish by comparison.

And he also knows how to ratchet up suspense when he needs to. Carrie's walk to the stage after she and Tommy are named the prom king and queen is so tense that it's practically unbearable. You know what will happen next, and you know that there is absolutely no way whatsoever that it will end happily. But De Palma puts the scene together in such a way that it almost gets your hopes up that it'll all go fine despite the knowledge that it won't.

De Palma's fantastic direction is made better by the fact that he has a great screenplay to work from. Written by Lawrence D. Cohen, the screenplay takes a different approach to Carrie's story than the book did. In King's novel, a good portion of the narrative was told in the fashion of magazine and newspaper articles and interviews written and conducted after the fact. Cohen eliminates that concept, instead choosing to tell the tale in a more linear fashion. And it works. It's practically flawless.

But where Cohen succeeds is his handling of the characters. The characters are what drive Carrie, and Cohen has written them beautifully. Of particular note is Carrie herself, who is a heart-wrenchingly tragic figure. You have to be utterly soulless to not feel at least a little sympathy for her. Though her life is horrible, things finally begin going her way at the end. Sure, her mom is still an abusive loon who believes her innocent daughter is evil incarnate, but Carrie has finally found the confidence to stand up to her. She goes to the prom and begins to be accepted as an equal by her classmates. Even her date appears to have a little actual romantic interest in her. But the fact that all the hope for the future that Carrie may have mustered up is dashed away by one single act of cruelty is heartbreaking.

And the absolutely brilliant casting only helps to hammer it home. As good as De Palma and Cohen's contributions to the movie are, the actors and actresses who make up the cast elevate it to something higher. The movie wouldn't have been nearly as good had they not been at the top of their game, but everyone in the movie is fantastic. The supporting cast, particularly Amy Irving and Nancy Allen, are great, but Carrie is carried by two specific performances.

One is Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother. Laurie had not appeared in a movie since Paul Newman's The Hustler in 1961, and I don't know why she didn't get any work in that fifteen-year span, because she's absolutely perfect here. She's frightening in the role, performing with a passion unlike any other actress I've ever seen. Laurie takes the repressed whackjob that is Margaret White and makes the character her own. She very much deserved that Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she received, and she probably would have completely stolen the movie had it not been for its leading lady.

And yes, Sissy Spacek takes the movie and runs away with it. The movie probably would have all been for naught had Spacek not been so wonderful in the role. She's so good that you aren't seeing an actress playing a character, but Carrie White herself. Spacek brings the troubled young girl to life, playing her with a believable awkwardness. You can't help but feel an overwhelming level of sympathy for the character thanks to Spacek. Had any other actress been hired, or if Spacek had come even close to half-assing it, it would have ruined everything else about the movie.

And unlike a lot of other movies that use this trope, her transition from "ugly duckling to beautiful swan" is actually believable. She actually looks mousy and dowdy, as well as an ethereal beauty at the prom. A lot of movies will just slap a pair of glasses and a bad haircut on an actress before giving her a makeover, but Spacek plays it in a way that is incredibly similar to how Christopher Reeve created a dichotomy between Clark Kent and Superman. Like Laurie, her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was very much deserved. And though she won that Oscar four years later for her role as country music legend Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter, I'm still going to pick Carrie as her most outstanding performance.

The story goes that Stephen King tossed his manuscript for Carrie in the trash halfway through writing it, believing that the story would end up being awful. He only finished it when his wife fished it out of that trashcan and convinced him to keep going with it. So I guess I should owe Tabitha King a debt of gratitude, because not only did that finished novel launch her husband's career, but it allowed one of my favorite horror movies of all-time to be made. Carrie is a great movie that you absolutely need to see if you even remotely consider yourself a fan of horror movies. The movie gets four and a half stars on my scale, and one of my proudest recommendations. And remember, be nice to the misfits, okay?

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dick Tracy (1990)

Batman may lay claim to the title of "the world's greatest detective," but that only accounts for superhero comics. When it comes to crime comics, no detective can top Dick Tracy. The creation of cartoonist Chester Gould, the square-jawed Tracy debuted in a comic strip published by the Detroit Mirror on October 4, 1931. The syndicated strip grew in popularity (due largely to the bizarre-looking villains Gould would have Tracy regularly face), being adapted into a radio drama and movies during the '30s and '40s, a TV show in the '50s, and a series of five-minute cartoons in 1961.

But while the original strip is still being published to this day, it's been decades since Dick Tracy has had any sort of real mainstream notoriety. He did make something of a comeback in 1990, though, in the form of a live-action movie starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's Batman a year prior, the movie was promoted like crazy upon its release. It had its own video game and toy line, a tie-in with McDonald's, and even a midnight release decades before midnight releases for summer blockbusters became the norm. But while the movie was a huge success at the box office, and was nominated for seven Oscars (three of which it won), it was met with only moderate critical approval. But I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I'll tell you why.

Some cops are just cops. But Dick Tracy (Beatty) is a force of nature, an unstoppable warrior dispensing justice in a city overrun by organized crime. Tracy's determination has nearly put the city's various mob bosses out of business, which gives ambitious gangster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) an idea. He proposes that the remaining mob bosses pool their resources and snuff out Tracy for good. Not all of them agree to his terms, but soon find Big Boy violently taking their turf for himself. But it primarily brings him more attention from Tracy, who ramps up his attempts to bring Big Boy to justice.

The ordeal with Big Boy isn't the only thing Tracy must deal with, though. He's become the temporary guardian of a nameless street urchin (Charlie Korsmo) who answers only to "Kid." He gets some help in dealing with Kid from his devoted girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), though their relationship has hit a rough patch due to the flirtatious advances of a sultry lounge singer named Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), And when a mysterious, faceless figure called "The Blank" begins eliminating members of Big Boy's gang, things couldn't get hairier for Tracy.

Okay, so Dick Tracy might not be the best movie it could have been. It has its share of flaws, sure. But even at its worse, it's still a serviceable flick that's more entertaining that some might give it credit for. A lot of it is because of just how earnest the movie is. It never seems to want to be anything more than the sum of its parts. And that sum is a comic strip brought to a brightly-colored life, a 100-minute amusement park ride that's as fun as it could possibly be.

As I said before, Warren Beatty is not only Dick Tracy's star, but its director as well. And while it did not earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Director as his efforts on Heaven Can Wait and Reds did, I thought his work here was still pretty good. Beatty's extensive use of oversaturated primary colors and flat matte paintings are a little jarring at first, but they actually help to establish the comic strip atmosphere that Beatty was aiming for. It's apparent that he's a fan of the Dick Tracy property, because his enthusiasm shows. You can tell he wanted to make the best movie he possibly could. And to be honest, I think he succeeded.

But where I thought the movie struggles a bit was in the writing department. Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. (with uncredited rewrites by Beatty and Bo Goldman), the script is what I felt was the movie's weakest element. But it's primarily due to how fast-paced it is. The story moves along so quickly that it's hard for anything to sink in. And there's a lot of going on here, too. The movie is practically rendered a blur because it keeps moving from scene to scene without allowing the audience to catch up.

Outside of that, the script isn't wholly awful. It's obviously a simple tale of good vs. evil, as most comic book movies are. That sort of thing can be hackneyed if handled poorly. But Dick Tracy does it well enough for me. Dick Tracy might not be the brooding loner that Burton's Batman was, but his determination and devotion to justice make him a fine hero. And although the villains were basically one-dimensional gangster caricatures, the script still crafts those caricatures in such a way that they're perfectly acceptable bad guys.

The cast, meanwhile, all put forth very strong performances. Beatty is impressive, playing the titular detective with conviction. Though he doesn't quite match the hawk-nosed, square-jawed look that Dick Tracy's had since his creation, Beatty still does a fantastic job in bringing the character to life.

In the role of our primary villain, Al Pacino is as over-the-top as one could possibly get. Pacino goes beyond chewing the scenery; he practically devours it. Every second he spends on the screen is a lot of fun, as he plays Big Boy Caprice with everything he's got. But I'm honestly surprised that he was actually nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He didn't win, losing out to Joe Pesci's performance from Goodfellas, but the fact he was even nominated is still astounding. It just doesn't seem like the kind of movie or performance that would get the Academy's attention.

The rest of the cast put forth respectable performances as well. I don't think many people will argue with me if I say Madonna is a better singer than an actress, but her work here isn't bad at all. The role of Breathless Mahoney was pretty much built for her; it suits her sultry early-'90s persona so well that she's practically playing herself. Of course, it helps that having her play a lounge singer gives her a chance to display what made her famous to begin with. The three songs Madonna performs for the movie's soundtrack are catchy and entertaining, and Madonna belts them out like a champ.

I liked Glenne Headly a lot too. She provides the perfect counterbalance to Madonna's sexy "bad girl" personality, and was charming and likable to boot. Dustin Hoffman and William Forsythe also provided amusing yet sadly minor performances, while Mandy Patinkin isn't bad at all in his tiny role as Caprice's club's piano player and The Blank's sidekick.

The only performance I didn't really care for was Charlie Korsmo. It's actually not Korsmo's fault, as he completely throws himself into the role and makes a memorable effort. The problem I had was with how the character was written. Kid is an annoying little brat for a lot of the movie, to the point that I found it hard to like him. Again, that's no fault of Korsmo's, but still, it's annoying to have to deal with Kid so much.

Dick Tracy may have been made in an effort to ride Batman's coattails, but it totally works on its own efforts. It's actually a pretty hard movie to dislike. The movie's a bright, colorful affair where the good guys will always beat the bad guys no matter the odds against them. And what's wrong with a movie like that once in a while? My final verdict for Dick Tracy is three and a half stars and a thumb up. And yes, I do still want one of those yellow trenchcoats too.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, August 19, 2011

Survival of the Dead (2010)

George A. Romero has long been a beloved figure among horror fans. It's because of him that zombies as we know and love them today even exist. But outside of his zombie movies, he hasn't really had a whole lot of success. I mean, Creepshow was great, and The Crazies has found some cult popularity, but it's Romero's zombie movies that people want to see. So I guess that's why, with the surge in popularity that the living dead have enjoyed over the last several years, Romero just keeps coming back to them.

I can't say I blame him. Any zombie movie with his name slapped on it will immediately have an audience. That's probably why he's ventured away from his previous "one zombie movie a decade" format and cranked out three of them since 2005. Unfortunately, those three movies are marked by a noticeable decline in quality. While I enjoyed Land of the Dead more than I probably should have, Diary of the Dead was disappointingly mediocre. And that brings us to Romero's latest effort, Survival of the Dead. And let me be honest with you: it's not his worst, but it most certainly is not his best.

As our story begins, we're introduced to a group of National Guardsmen led by Sgt. Crockett (Alan van Sprang). With the zombie outbreak becoming more and more widespread, the soldiers have gone rogue, robbing civilians and killing whatever zombies stand in the way between them and their survival. They find an online invitation to Plum Island, a small island off the coast of Delaware, and set a course for what they believe might be a safe haven from the zombie horde.

But they arrive to find that Plum Island is the scene of a tense family feud between the O'Flynns and the Muldoons. The feud is caused by the clashing ideals of the family patriarchs; Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) wants eliminate the zombies on Plum Island, while Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) simply wishes to keep them restrained until they can learn to be docile. The rogue soldiers are caught in the middle of the war, one that's only made worse by the zombies running loose on the island.

While the movie is an improvement over Diary of the Dead, it still gave me the feeling that Romero is starting to run out of steam. It's as if he's making these zombie movies because it's what people expect from him and because he knows there's an easy paycheck in it. I hate saying that, but that's the impression I got from Survival of the Dead. It's not that bad of a movie in spite of the overwhelmingly negative reviews it's gotten on Rotten Tomatoes, but it's nowhere near the quality of some of his other movies.

One of the biggest problems I had with Survival of the Dead was its lack of scares. If you're going to make a scary movie, why the hell would you leave out the scares? While Romero's direction was technically sound, the fact that it just wasn't scary at all really hurts it. That really crummy CGI gore doesn't help anything either. It looks way too fake to be taken seriously. And to top it off, the whole thing doesn't even feel like it should be a Romero movie. The whole movie has the presence of some direct-to-video zombie movie made by somebody who wished they were Romero. The whole thing is just plain disappointing.

And I unfortunately thought Romero's script was a little on the weak side too. The whole thing is pretty much Romero utilizing every possible entry from the "George Romero Trope/Cliché Handbook." There are the amoral soldiers, a battle of "kill zombies vs. experiment on them," zombies remembering habits from their old lives. A character afraid of turning into a zombie asks to be shot. And it even ends the same way as all of Romero's others zombie movies, with the living dead getting loose and wiping out most of the characters.

There's nothing new in Survival of the Dead. Romero doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, but it's like he wasn't even trying to go beyond the ordinary. I don't ask for much out of zombie movies, but I'd at least appreciate something that wasn't the same old thing I'd seen a million times before. But at least he didn't try shoving his usual social satire down the viewer's throat like he did in his previous two zombie movies. It was more subtle than that, to the point that I'm not even 100% sure there was a social satire beyond his usual "the living are more dangerous than the dead" concept that Romero has been using since all the way back in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Again, it's nothing new.

At least I dug the cast. Alan van Sprang puts forth a good performance as the leader of the National Guardsmen, and though he has a few iffy moments, he manages to pull through with a respectable performance. Richard Fitzpatrick wasn't bad either, though I thought he came off as a little too hammy. Devon Bostick and Kathleen Munroe put forth some good performances, and Stefano Collaciti is funny and likable. But my favorite performance came from Kenneth Walsh. Walsh is a lot of fun, playing the role with a charm that makes his presence a welcome one. He's the best part of this whole thing, and the movie is better for it.

There once was a day when news of a new zombie movie from George Romero would be a cause for celebration among horror fans. But after Survival of the Dead, I'm not sure if that's news I want to hear anymore. If Diary of the Dead was the equivalent of a race car driver hitting the wall at 200 miles per hour, then Survival of the Dead is the race car flipping and catching fire. The movie is an utter disappointment all the way through. It's a by-the-numbers effort with as much life in it as the zombies. It's watchable, at the very least. But it's nothing special at all. So Survival of the Dead gets two stars on the scale. I've heard Romero thinks he has two more zombie movies in him, so let's hope those can improve upon this.

Final Rating: **

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Diary of the Dead (2008)

With everyone packing cameras built into their cell phones, dozens of news networks airing 24 hours a day, and widespread Internet access, information can travel faster than ever before. It's that sort of thing that can change the world, as evidenced by how quickly news of the recent political protests and revolutions in the Middle East spread and sparked other countries in the region to do the same thing. And that information can be spun in a million different directions. Whoever's telling the story can pass it along however they feel, embellishing and omitting things as they please.

This proved to be a prime target for George A. Romero, the horror maestro whose zombie movies have almost always been flavored with a touch of social commentary. The prevalence of social media and news spin led Romero to combine it with the "found footage" genre for his 2008 movie Diary of the Dead. Taking things in a different direction than Romero's four prior zombie movies, Diary of the Dead is one of his more blatant attempts at a social commentary to the point that it's almost overbearing. But we'll get into that later.

Rather than continue the ever-worsening zombie apocalypse depicted previously, the movie takes us all the way back to the beginning. We're quickly introduced to a group of University of Pittsburgh film students creating a low-budget horror movie — boasting the rather apropos title The Death of Death — out in the Pennsylvania woods. During a lull between takes, the group overhears a radio newscast about widespread rioting and mass murder. These stories soon begin to include reports of cannibalism committed by reanimated corpses.

Project director Jason Creed (Josh Close) has the bright idea to turn The Death of Death into a documentary chronicling the zombie outbreak. He and the crew pile into an RV and hit the road, heading for the house owned by Jason's girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan). As they journey across the state, Jason continues to chronicle every tiny detail while life as they knew it crumbles to ruins around them.

Every time I've sat down to watch one of Romero's zombie movies, I've come away having enjoyed it. But while I didn't outright hate Diary of the Dead, it disappointed me. Comparing it to the other chapters in Romero's zombie saga, I felt it represented a rather steep decline in terms of quality. Granted, it's gotten some rather positive reviews online. (The ones I've read were positive, anyway.) But I didn't really get it. Diary of the Dead just didn't do anything for me at all.

I would imagine that utilizing the "found footage" style after spending forty years as a traditional filmmaker would be a rough transition, but Romero's direction isn't that bad. It's not without its flaws, though. The whole mockumentary thing seems like a cheat at times, since the characters start splicing in footage from security cameras and news reports as the movie goes on. That's forgivable, though, since the whole concept of the movie is that the characters were making a documentary. But it becomes a little distracting on occasion.

I can get past that, but the other problems were a little harder for me to overlook. There are very few moments of tension or suspense, and not many scares either. It's like Romero got so wrapped up in his social satire that he forgot horror movies were supposed to be scary. And let's not forget the CGI gore. Yeah, CGI gore in a movie directed by George Romero. That was tolerable in Land of the Dead, but for a movie supposedly shot with handheld cameras, the gore looks tremendously fake. It usually looks fake anyway, but it's faker than usual here. Could they not have gotten credible practical effects for the movie?

But at least Romero's direction is better than his screenplay. The lame dialogue is bad enough, but his social satire is even worse. I thought his satire of class warfare in Land of the Dead was bad, but wow. The whole "new media is evil" commentary Romero goes for is really bad. It's incredibly pretentious, and done rather poorly to boot. All it does is make the characters stupid and annoying, And oh boy, are those characters stupid and annoying. I spent the whole movie wanting to jump into the movie and feed them to the zombies.

And the acting isn't that great either. Due in large part to how badly the characters are written, none of the cast are very endearing. The vast majority of them are actually rather forgettable. The only one who stood out in my mind was Michelle Morgan, whose bitchiness and stiff line delivery put her a bit on the insufferable side of things. I also didn't particularly care for Josh Close, but that was mostly due to just how awful Romero has written his character.

I wanted to like Diary of the Dead. But while I appreciate Romero taking a rather novel approach to his bread and butter, I simply couldn't bring myself to like the movie. It simply wore out its welcome way too quickly. That's really a shame too, because Diary of the Dead could have been awesome. It could have been one of the coolest movies in Romero's filmography. Sadly, it's not. It's just one big 95-minute disappointment. I don't want to, but I can't give the movie anything other than two stars. Maybe if somebody ever remakes Diary of the Dead like they have some of Romero's other movies, they'll do a better job with it.

Final Rating: **

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Call me crazy, but I always get a kick out of movies that come right out and tell you everything you need to know right in the title. Snakes on a Plane had, get this, snakes on a plane. Zack and Miri Make a Porno saw the titular characters do exactly that, and the Harold & Kumar movies — ...Go To White Castle and ...Escape From Guantanamo Bay — had Harold and Kumar go to White Castle and escape from Guantanamo Bay.

And this brings us to the release of Cowboys & Aliens. There's cowboys, there's aliens, and that's pretty much it. It's actually based on a comic book, a graphic novel published by Platinum Studios in 2006. Created by Scott Michael Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, I actually hadn't ever heard of it until about two or three weeks ago. But since this is a movie review site, let's stick with the Cowboys & Aliens movie. And you know what? The movie is pretty great.

Welcome to New Mexico, circa the 1870s. As the movie begins, a man (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no idea how he got there. He cannot remember the past few days, or even his own name. All he does know is that he's got a strange metal cuff strapped to his wrist. The man heads for the nearby town of Absolution, where the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) recognizes him as the wanted outlaw Jake Lonergan. The sheriff tries arresting him, only succeeding when Jake is knocked out by a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde).

The sheriff takes Jake into custody and prepares to hand him over to federal marshals, only to be interrupted by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy cattleman who practically owns the entire town. Jake and his gang robbed Colonel Dolarhyde's stagecoach, and demands that Jake be turned over to him so that he can claim the bounty. But before things can get settled, alien spaceships attack the town and start abducting people. The ships are only repelled by what I can only describe as a ray gun that emerges from Jake's cuff. Jake and Colonel Dolarhyde round up a posse of survivors and, teaming with Jake's gang and a local Apache tribe, try to hunt down the aliens and rescue those they've kidnapped.

Cowboys & Aliens is not a perfect movie. But its cast and crew do such a great job putting it together that any flaws it had can be overlooked easily. It's a damn fine flick, one that revels in its ludicrous concept yet admirably avoids drifting into camp territory. You would think a movie about cowboys in the Old West fighting malicious beings from another planet would be treated as some kind of B-movie parody like Snakes on a Plane. But Cowboys & Aliens is a serious flick and is better for it.

Jon Favreau is our director here, and whoever made the call to hire him made a great choice. No stranger to effects-heavy summer blockbusters, Favreau manages to delicately balance both the Western and science fiction genres. You'd think that those two genres wouldn't really gel all that well, but he pulls it off without making it seem forced. Favreau actually makes you come away with the impression that Westerns and sci-fi were meant to go together all along.

But it helps that Favreau has some fantastic elements at his disposal. Take, for example, the cinematography. Handled by Matthew Libatique, who had previously collaborated with Favreau on the Iron Man movies, the cinematography is very, very good. It perfectly establishes the necessary tone, while effortlessly evoking the style of both of the genres that the movie dips into. And the special effects and CGI are also top notch, feeling believable and seamlessly blending in with what's actually there in front of the camera.

Unfortunately, I thought the script — credited to Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby — was where the movie's flaws started to seep in. I have no problem with the fact that the comic book's story being watered down to the point that it's basically "cowboys and Indians vs. generic alien invaders" and not much else, but that's all there is. The story is about as basic as you can get, and the characters are one-dimensional. The whole script is just like how I described the aliens: generic. I mean, I can't say I thought the writing was overwhelmingly bad, but it was just there. And that helps nobody.

At least the cast tries making up for it. While I thought the supporting cast — primarily Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell — contribute fine performances, they were all overshadowed by the three leads. Playing the mysterious Jake Lonergan is James Bond himself, Daniel Craig. Craig is great in the role, though it doesn't require much of him outside of being an enigmatic tough guy. I can say the exact same thing about Harrison Ford, who only has to be a grizzled Civil War veteran with a short fuse. Both Ford and Craig are likable in their roles, playing them wholeheartedly. But thanks to the writing, they're playing characters who aren't much more than how I described them.

Olivia Wilde actually gets the worst of it. Her character is so flat that if it were a swimming pool, Wilde would have cracked her skull open if she dove in headfirst. She's charismatic and is obviously trying her hardest, but the role isn't much. Wilde does everything she can to overcome that, however. Her performance is quite good, her presence making a weak character seem a lot better.

The 2011 summer blockbuster season has seen its share of bland, less than stellar movies. And I know this review started to take a turn where it sounded like I was being overly negative. But I actually really liked Cowboys & Aliens. In spite of its flaws, it's a fun flick that is entertaining from the first frame to the last. I'm actually surprised that it's gotten so much competition from The Smurfs this weekend and last; because why would you want to see some awful-looking (and badly reviewed) movie when you could see James Bond and Indiana Jones fight aliens for two hours? So yeah, I liked Cowboys & Aliens, and I'm going to give it three and a half stars. And now I shall wait for the sequel, Cavemen & Astronauts.

Final Rating: ***½