Warm Bodies

WB posterBefore we begin our discussion of Warm Bodies, I want to say few words about vampires. Why vampires? Because zombies and vampires have a great deal in common, especially if you look at their history. In ancient times, vampires bore more resemblance to zombies than to anything we would call a vampire today. They looked – and smelled – like the reanimated corpses they were. At dusk, they would claw their way out of their graves and stagger about, seeking to feed upon the living. And they did not wear Vampire perfume.

The reasons for their existence also intersect. Everyone today is used to zombies being created by a virus. But you probably don’t know that vampires, too, have been through this phase. You are probably familiar with the 2007 zombie movie I am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. You might not know that this is a remake of The Last Man on Earth, directed by Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price220px-Lastmanonearth1960s (1964), which was based on the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). Of course, neither Last Man, nor the novel had a single zombie. That’s right, in those stories, a disease turns the living into vampires. For some reason, they are still repelled by crosses and mirrors. Go figure.

Bella Lugosi started a change in the vampire’s image in 1931, and people began to think of vampires as dapper gentlemen. Another significant milestone came with Interview with the Vampire (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1994), the first major motion picture to focus on the vampire’s point of view. Interview included, among other things, Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire whose conscience is haunted by the people he has to drain to survive. Instead of rooting for Louis’ destruction, moviegoers felt bad for him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like one of Hollywood’s most bankable heartthrobs. This was the fulcrum in the swing from vampires as dangerous to vampires as desirable. More recent vampires are genuine bring-home-to-mom material, and in fact are often kinder and more thoughtful than humans. In fact, in certain series, e.g. Underworld, vampires don’t even drink human blood. The subject of how they survive is kind of glossed over, leaving us to assume that vampires exist only to look sexy, twirl pistols, and spout the angst of a prolonged adolescence.

SeleneA lot of people are really enjoying this desirable vampire craze, of course. Nothing has generated so much drooling female hysteria as the smut series we call Twilight. But as much as Interview gave us, it also caused us to lose something. Vampires as they once were provided no end of engaging stories and wish fulfillment, because they were enemies you could kill without remorse (because they were already, you know, dead). Everyone loves a story of human struggle and triumph, especially with some combat thrown in, but when such stories involve human enemies, that raises all kinds of pesky moral issues, along with the occasional libel suit. If we have to sympathize with vampires now, who can we kill without remorse?

Zombies to the rescue! I’ve already expounded on the flood of zombie flicks we’ve seen in the 19 years since Interview. Zombie movies are the perfect genre. They’re quick and cheap to make, they don’t need to be good, and they are the perfect form of escapism, because not only do they provide an army of unfeeling, unthinking enemies, they also bring about the downfall of the Man. That mortgage you’re stressed about? Forget about it! That cubicle job you have to go to everyday? Not anymore! You now need concern yourself with three things: Food. Shelter. Zombies. So pick up your shotgun or chainsaw, and go have a head-splattering, limb-severing blast, all amid a playground of empty mansions, unguarded stores, and abandoned Ferraris.

This brings us to Warm Bodies. We join our narrator, a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who remembers only that his name started with R, as he shambles through a crowd of other zombies, who occasionally manage to squeeze single words from their rigor mortized throats. We also meet Bonies. Bonies are what zombies will eventually become. They resemble the more skeletal monsters from The Mummy and are conceptually the same thing as the re-deads from the Resident Evil games. Our hero makes his home in a disused airplane, where he collects trinkets, listens to vinyl and wishes to be alive again.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers, including lovers Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), leaves a fortified compound to scavenge supplies. They are busily ransacking a pharmacy, when a pack of zombies, including R, takes them by surprise. R is momentarily knocked down and watches Julie, rhythmically firing her shot gun, and apparently falls for her. In the following moments, R kills Perry, and proceeds to consume him. He narrates that when a zombie eats someone’s brain, that zombie experiences that person’s memories.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

He concludes “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to feel what you felt … to feel a little less dead.” The zombies come out the clear winners of this skirmish, and Julie is left standing alone, her magazines drained and her throwing knives spent. R approaches her before most of the others have left their kills and speaks her name, having learned it from Perry’s brain. To her astonishment, he rubs blood and grime over her face, and tells her “Come … s-safe.” With few options, she follows him and realizes the other zombies assume she is a new “addition to the family.” He takes her home and promises, in what sentence fragments he can manage, to keep her safe. However, she initially refuses to interact with him other than by curling into a ball and crying. He comments “I can tell when a girl needs her space. There’s other ways to get to know someone. Like eating her dead boyfriend’s brains.” He has saved several pieces from the attack, and over the next few days, he learns more of Perry and Julie’s story, and becomes increasingly remorseful for killing Perry. During this same time frame, R(omeo) and Julie(t) begin to talk more and grow closer.

R begins to change. His heart begins to beat, he begins to experience warmth and cold, and he begins to dream (“The dead do not sleep”). What’s more, as R changes, it also seems to affect the other zombies. Significantly, the zombies in this movie lack the wounds other zombie movies like to put on their zombies.  No lips missing, or ribs showing or anything. From the beginning, I wondered if being a zombie was any different from having arthritis and Alzheimer’s. We actually don’t get any clues as to how any of these people died (supposedly, none of them remember). The implication seems to be, at least at the symbolic level, that these zombies only ever “died” in that they forgot what it was to be human. As they start to remember, they start to move less stiffly and form sentences. Meanwhile, Julie begins trying to convince her father (John Malkovich), who runs the compound that the zombies are not the enemy and want to help.

All this is thrown together pretty loosely. For example, there’s never really a good explanation of how the humans and zombies end up allied against the Bonies. But I’m not complaining. I have to admit, the end of Warm Bodies really did bring a smile to my face, even if there were some holes in the plot. After so many zombie flicks tried to out do each other with bleakness and cynicism, it was cool to see one where there actually was a cure found — and it wasn’t some magical batch of chemicals, but simply, well … a little TLC.

But geez, now we’ve also lost zombies as unfeeling enemies that we can kill without remorse! If bothzombies love 2 vampires and zombies are now eligible mates with hopes, dreams and humanity, what supernatural creatures can we still use as fodder for the part of us that just wants to wield a shotgun? Hmm … maybe witches? More on that next time.

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Rise of the Guardians

Rise G posterThe first thing you’ll notice about Rise of the Guardians is that it’s certainly, well, different. We start off with narration by the main character (Chris Pine). “Darkness … that’s the first thing I remember. It was dark and it was cold and I was scared.” Fair enough. But he continues. “Then I saw the Moon. It seemed to chase the dark away, and then I wasn’t scared anymore.” Ooookay. About this time, we see our narrator, his face young, but his hair white, apparently being pulled by an unseen force through the top of a frozen lake, to alight, barefoot, on the snow-covered branch of a tree, apparently unbothered by the cold. He soon wanders into a village, where he realizes no one can see or hear him. He continues: “My name is Jack Frost. How do I know that? The Moon told me so. That’s all he ever told me.”

Ooookay.

We then cut to 300 years later, at the North Pole. How do we know it’s the North Pole? The text on screen tells us so. We cut to the inside of a building, where a pair of booted feet make the ground shake with each step. We see a pair of strong arms, one tattooed “naughty,” the other tattooed “nice,” gripping a chainsaw, as it lays into a hapless block of ice. As a brilliant ice sculpture takes shape, we hear a booming voice: “Still waiting for cookies!”

Yes, it’s him. Chris Cringle, Pier Noel, bringer of joy and lover of children, but he’s nothing like you’ve seen in any other Santa movie. “North,” as he is nicknamed in Guardians (Alec Baldwin), is a regular badass, a mountain of a man that would make Jack Reacher submissive (yeah, I said it). He drives a tricked-out sleigh that would make Shaft jealous, pulled by reindeer that look like they should be ridden by the eight horsemen of the apocalypse. Or maybe Ghost Rider. Or the Headless Horseman. (They totally needed a scene where North pulls the sleigh up in front of the Fortress of Solitude and yells “Hey, Kent! You need to get yourself one of these babies!” And then races off, leaving a green-with-envy Superman in a cloud of dust. Alas, I wasn’t consulted.) Best of all, he carries these two huge scimitars, which he twirls with expertise, and with which he slices and dices the forces of evil!

Dude! Where was this Santa when I was kid??

North looks at his globe, a magical monitor from which he watches over all the children of the world and sees evil power creeping across it. He deduces that the lord of all evil himself, none other than the Boogeyman (Jude Law), is amassing power for an attack on the world’s kids. He calls an emergency meeting of the Guardians, supernatural beings who are given the power and responsibility to protect the wonder and innocence of children everywhere. The team consists of North, the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (no voice) and, of course,

I'm not a kangaroo, mate. I'm a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

I’m not a kangaroo, mate. I’m a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

the Easter Bunny, who is also nothing like you’ve seen before. “Bunny” is voiced by Hugh Jackman, and Jackman must have enjoyed the heck out of this roll. He gives free reign to his Australian accent, and kicks his tough-guy persona into overdrive. Fittingly, his animated avatar is six feet tall, master of Thai-Chi and sports thorny tattoos across his keg-sized shoulders. He also wears a quiver across his back, carrying deadly boomerangs and egg bombs, which he’s not afraid to use.

Awesome. Though I have to say, all this makes watching him paint beautiful designs on eggs kind of awkward. Imagine if you caught Tito Ortiz doing needle point. Well, nothing’s perfect.

As you’ve probably figured out, this is a story not unlike The Avengers. The idea is to get a handful of superhumans together and have them fight against a huge army of nameless, faceless bad guys led by one villain who actually speaks. The Boogeyman (aka Pitch Black) even has a back story similar to that of Loki in Avengers (also rather similar to that of Satan in the Bible). He was once a Guardian, but when he demanded all the power and renown for himself, The Man in the Moon dismissed him from the company of the Guardians, and cast him down to the earth, to wander about scaring people. The Man in the Moon fills the roll of God in this story. We never see him directly, but he selects people to be Guardians and directs them in the fight against evil. He watches over the earth. And for a movie about Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy … it works well enough. Once he knows Pitch is up to something, the Man in the Moon selects Jack Frost to join the ranks of the Guardians, and the battle begins.

If your dentist had Tooth's enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

If your dentist had Tooth’s enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

How does Rise of the Guardians stack up? It definitely takes some risks and I have to give it a nod for that. It’s not likely to become a classic, but it creates a world you can lose yourself in, and takes its characters to a place no one ever has before. It has a few gripping action sequences, and some funny lines. All in all, I liked it, and held on to the DVD to watch it a second time before returning it. Director Peter Ramsey helmed it well, considering that, with what they tried to do conceptually, it could have been an absolute train wreck of a movie, and it was actually pretty good. Plus, it’s safe for kids.

Maybe even a little too safe. There is one major flaw in Guardians, and that is that they do an absolutely abysmal job with the villain. Pitch is represented in every scene as this weird looking guy who mainly hangs out in the shadows and whines about how unfair his life is. They never make him scary. This is especially problematic considering who he is supposed to be. I mean, he’s the  Boogeyman, for Pete’s sake! He’s a Satan. A Dracula. The embodiment of all evil and terror from our basest instincts. The faceless horror that reaches out of every shadow to drag you to Hell. He’s the reason 4-year-olds wake up screaming at 2 a.m., the reason you suddenly start walking faster at night and you don’t know why, the reason grown men still make sure their closets are latched before bed. He needs to scare the audience, but Pitch never becomes the slightest bit threatening. We never see him do anything, except create this army of black horses (Night-mares. Get it?) that the Guardians fight. It’s implied that he’s giving kids nightmares around the world, but we never see any nightmares, or their effects.

Do something scary!

Do something scary!

I understand they were making a PG family film; I’m not asking to see blood and guts. They still could have made him scary. All Ramsey had to do was watch a few Disney movies and take notes. Disney has perfected the art of terrorizing kids and still getting a G rating. Throughout the whole movie, I thought it must be building to something. Pitch was going to change into something horrible and start attacking some kids … no? Well, I’m sure they’ll at least have some decent jump-scares where he pops out of something, maybe his eyes red, his teeth pointy … no? Well maybe he’ll transform for the final battle … nope. Pitch stays the same bland computer sprite for the entire movie and never makes himself a real threat. That, by itself, takes a star and a half off of this movie’s score.

Oh, well, like I said, nothing’s perfect. Guardians is still a wild ride, and well worth watching, if only for being original and good.

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Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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Green Lantern

Let’s get one thing straight: DC Comics does NOT suck. Superman and Batman were starting to look a bit burried under a landslide of Marvel movies. Marvel Comics built its own film studio and every, single Marvel character (even the really stupid ones) had to have his or her own movie. People were starting to say that DC couldn’t hack it, or that they had Batman, but that was their only decent francise. The truth is, DC has been very much alive during Marvel’s decade of dominance at the box office. It simply stayed in the realm of animation. A TV series called Justice League ran from 2001 to 2006, and spawned a large number of hour-long movies. (By the way, Kevin Conroy’s Batman from the animated series is still going strong.) But finally, DC has had the courage to step into the
big leagues with one of their less-recognized characters.

The Green Lantern is a much maligned superhero. People are quick to dismiss him because *snort!* “His weakness is yellow! How pathetic is that?” The thing you have to remember is that Green Lantern mythology is not meant to be taken at all literally. While many superhero stories fit pretty well into the science fiction category, Green Lantern is thoroughly fantasy; it seeks to make sense only in a metaphorical or symbolic way. And while the events on screen are impossible to take seriously, they still capture the universal human experience. A good example is the GL-centrered espisode of Justice League Despero,” which takes place on another planet, but spells out the very earthly themes of  seduction by power and the spirit to resist oppression. It’s the same with this movie. Green
is the color of will. Yellow is the color of fear. As Corps General Sinestro (Mark Strong) explains, “it is fear that stops will; stops you from acting.” That’s why yellow can stop green.

This film does a really good job of bringing Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and company to the big screen. The origin story is, of course, the necessary evil of every super hero film, and like many films this one has been criticized for being light on action. There’s some truth to that, but, to be honest, I really didn’t notice. Writer Greg Berlanti draws the audience into the story so well, and the cast (especially Reynolds) fills out their roles so well, that mind-blowing action isn’t really necessary.

One interesting development: for obvious reasons, a few years ago, DC began to think that GL creating tanks and tigers from his ring to chase the bad guys was a bit … cartoonish, and so Justice League
limited his power to creating energy shields, lasers and the like. In Green Lantern, the cartoonishness is back, with Hal whipping out gatling guns and roadsters at every turn. But the biggest surprise of all is probably that they make it work pretty well. The story centers around the Corps’ battle with an entity known as Parallax (oddly named after Hal’s eventual super-villain identity from the comics) and Hal’s struggle to be accepted by the Corps. It also has a few goodies, such as a nod to Sinestro’s inevitable slide into super-villiandom, and one absolutely priceless moment that backhands the secret identity complexes of superheroes everywhere.

So how does Green Lantern stack up? It doesn’t have the gritty reality of The Dark Knight, the heart-warming inspiration of Iron Man, or the powerful iconography of Superman Returns. But it’s still a solid adaptation of an under-rated franchise that’s worth checking out.  Incidently, so is the animated Green Lantern: First Flight. Green Lantern is clearly better than:

Electra

The Fantastic Four

The Fantastic Four 2

The Punisher

Spiderman 2

Hulk.

And probably at least as good as:

Ghostrider

Daredevil

Spiderman 3

X2: X-Men United

Iron Man 2

Wolverine

So stop knocking it. If nothing else, the color green has been proven to reduce stress, and this movie has it in spades.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Book and Movie)

So it has come to pass. Twenty years after an “idea simply fell into” author J.K. Rowling’s head, we are nearing the completion of a franchise development truly without precedent. Not only did Rowling manage to write an extremely rare heptilogy of novels, and make every one engaging enough to keep readers begging for more, but Warner Brothers Studios is now nearing completion of a truly unique achievement: an actual octilogy of multi-hundred-million dollar films, consistently written and cast over ten years. This achievement deserves mention, even if it’s ultimately just a testament to mindless consumerism. With so many major characters in the epic tale, many of them juveniles, keeping the entire cast together for eight movies must have been a managerial and legal nightmare, to say nothing of churning the movies out fast enough to (almost) keep up with the aging actors. Add to that the level of special effects the story requires and the problems always posed by child actors, and it’s truly amazing any of these films turned out decent.

And I would have to say, that’s just what they are: decent. Nothing more, nothing less. None of them are bad by any means, but it’s impossible for me to watch one without thinking about how much more powerful the book was. The books, unfettered by the logistical problems mentioned above, and free to be as long as they needed, took us to places no movie ever could. Two of the most powerful scenes from Book VII – when Ron destroys the locket, and when Herminoe attacks him afterward – have been reread many times by me, drinking in every word and feeling the raw emotion of the characters. Both of these scenes are pretty flat in the movie. In all honesty, though, I can’t read the more recent books without longing for the early books.

The tone of the stories has certainly changed along the way from Sorceror’s Stone to Deathly Hallows. Check out this excerpt from Stone, chapter 8:

There were a hundred and forty two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing steps halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.

Now listen to Hallows, chapter 1:

“Do you recognize our guest, Severus?” asked Voldemort. Snape raised his eyes to the upside-down face. All of the Death Eaters were looking up at the captive now, as though they had been given permission to show curiosity. As she revolved to face the firelight, the woman said in a cracked and terrified voice, Severus! Help me!”

“Ah, yes,” said Snape as the prisoner turned slowly away again. “For those of you who do not know,” said Voldemort, “We are joined here tonight by Charity Burbage who, until recently, taught at Hogwarts.”  There were small noises of comprehension around the table. A broad, hunched woman with pointed teeth cackled. “Yes, Professor Burbage taught the children of witches and wizards all about Muggles … how they are not so different from us …”

“Severus … please … please …”

Nobody laughed this time. There was no mistaking the anger and contempt in Voldemort’s voice. For the third time, Charity revolved to face Snape. Tears were pouring from her eyes into her hair. Snape looked back at her, quite impassive, as she turned slowly away from him again.

Avada Kedavra.”

The flash of green light illuminated every corner of the room. Charity fell, with a resounding crash, onto the table below, which trembled and creaked. Several Death Eaters leapt back in their chairs. Draco fell out of his onto the floor. “Dinner, Nagini,” said Voldemort softly, and the great snake swayed and slithered from his shoulders onto the polished wood.

We all love stories about more exciting worlds hidden in our own. As we all know, the premise of Harry Potter is that there is a civilization of wizards and witches living in hiding somewhere within our own world. There are enough of them and they have enough power and resources to have their own towns, traditions and unique modes of transportation. Of course, if you’re buying this, you’ll probably buy that there are mutant turtles practicing ninjitsu in the sewer. Why haven’t any of the zillion satellites orbiting the earth photographed Hogwarts? How could an airborne event the size of the Quiditch World Cup go unnoticed by Muggles? If wizards are so powerful, why do they need to hide? The story occasionally posits flimsy explanations for this, but of course, we all know, the real answer is WHO FRICKIN’ CARES? Harry Potter gives us the chance to escape our world completely and enter one of dragons, adventure and the moral clarity that’s hard to find in real life.

Some more questions about Harry’s world: if Parseltounge is such a rare gift, why can any human apparently talk to Aragog the Spider in Chamber of Secrets? Why is Hogwarts full of ghosts, while Harry’s parents and other’s killed by Voldemort are truly gone?  (This one must have hit Rowling about halfway through the series, because she starts ignoring the ghosts as much as possible about then.) Things like this weren’t a problem when we laughed with 11-year-old Harry on magical school grounds, but as Rowling made the books more and more serious and world-changing, we were forced to question them more and more. One of the most irritating features of the movies is that they increasingly portray Harry against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Harry Potter was at his best when we could join him in a closed universe, nothing like our own, and forget our troubles amid the innocent fun of quiddich and wizard’s chess. Frankly, the subject matter of Harry Potter just isn’t worthy of epic battles and mature romance.

Having said all this, I must confess that I still genuinely enjoyed the later books, and genuinely enjoyed Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Splitting this story in half enables the film to at least come closer to the depth and richness of the book. I’m eager to see Part 2. If you’re a Potter fan, you should check this one out. Just do me one favor. Don’t deprive yourself by only watching the movies. PLEASE read the books.

The Book:

The Movie:

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Friday Night Lights

The faithful reader might remember a piece I posted last fall on Glory Road. Thad H. posted a comment on that piece suggesting that I might enjoy Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian “Mojo” Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in their bid for their 6th State Championship.

If you like high school football you’ll love this movie. It takes place in small-town Texas (Odessa, to be exact), where football is a religion and the high school players are hailed as much as NFL stars. Director Peter Berg serves up plenty of bone-bruising hits, body-bending catches, and tackles that have to involve a trampoline just off camera.

Odessa is a blue collar, nearly impoverished town, and there are two kinds of boys: those who might make it out of this town, and those who won’t. Those who might play their hearts out on the field in hopes of getting an NCAA scholarship. Those who won’t play their hearts out on the field because this is all they’ll ever have.

Beginning of the season.

All this creates an intense environment to grow up in. Gaines is threatened with termination if he doesn’t win State, and after one loss, comes home to find “for sale” signs all over his yard. One of his players, Don Billingsly (Gerrett Hedlund), is cursed to be the son of a local football legend, and not have his ability. For several painful scenes, Chuck Billingsly (Tim McGraw) verbally abuses Don and grinds him down for cut-ups on the field. The Panthers win most of their games, but people flagellate them for every mistake. All of this spills onto the field, of course, and Berg makes the action nasty enough that you wonder if this is a sports movie or the teen version of  Braveheart. If you enjoy watching young men get their noses smashed and fingers broken, this is the movie for you.

FNLdoes keep the audience involved. I kept backing it up to revisit what happened. The pacing is a little off, though. In a couple of close games, for example, Mojo is getting killed for awhile, Gaines yells a lot, and then suddenly they have some big plays, and end up winning or making it close. The film never builds your anticipation or shows what they changed on the field to get that result. A good sports movie would at least have some kind of inspirational speech that turns things around.

But why complain? This is a movie made for sports nuts, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a real game. There was only one thing about this film I really didn’t like. (Spoiler alert: you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

Target audience of "Friday Night Lights."

For the championship game, Mojo goes up against Dallas Carter, a team full of 300-pounders that hardly seem to belong in high school. As a matter of fact, in reality, D.C. was later stripped of its title for playing an ineligible player.

End of the season.

 No one expects Mojo to give D.C. any trouble. After being down as much as 21 points, Mojo comes back to close the gap to six, and then falls inches short of a TD at the last second. We then see a lot of slow motion walking across the field. One person walking is Don Billingsly. Chuck comes out of the stands and gives him a hug – which Don actually accepts! WTF?? Now that he’s fought overwhelming odds, covered himself in bruises and sprained every joint in his body, he’s good enough for acknowledgement from the man who’s treated him like dirt all his life, and he takes it?? I wanted him to push dad aside and congratulate his team, or kiss his girlfriend, or something.

A lot of guys love to talk about how football produces the best kind of men, and this movie was made for them. I tend to think the success of ex-players has less to do with qualities the game instills than the fact that having played for the local high school is a golden ticket into the local country club. It gets a little old having to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guys that played football. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy the drama that comes with sports, however. FNL succeeds at what it sets out to do, and for that I give it

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Time Machine

60s poster 2In 1894, H.G. Wells published his novel The Time Machine, which, while short and simplistic, was in interesting thought experiment regarding mankind’s hopes for the future. Wells, a student of Marx, expressed a belief through metaphor that there could never be true equality, and there would always be those above, and those who served them. None the less, he told an ironic tale of how those on top would eventually get theirs.

Wells’ novel was made into a movie by George Pal. The film was released in02 poster 1960. A second version, starring Guy Pierce and Directed by Simon Wells, H.G.’s grandson, was released in 2002. I have yet to meet someone, besides me, who has read/seen all three versions, which is really too bad. People often ask me which version is the best. The truth is, it’s really hard to pick one, because they are all so different, and each one is strangely apropriate to their time. You might say, reading the book and then watching the movies is a trip through time in itself. I’ll explain.

book coverIn the book, the “Time Traveller,” who is never named, believes that if he travels far enough into the future, he will find mankind in a perfect state. No further explanation of this belief is ever given. Wishing to see mankind’s triumph, his first time-trip is a non-stop journey to the year A.D. 802,701. (Does this seem strange to anyone else? I mean, there’s a reason the Wright Bothers didn’t take their first flight over the Grand Canyon, and early sailors didn’t try to cross the Atlantic.) Once he stops, the Time Traveller first meets the Eloi, a society of childlike people. They live in small communities in futuristic yet deteriorating buildings, doing no work and eating a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he concludes that they are the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and adapting to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous.

Returning to the site where he arrived, the Time Traveller finds his time

Artist's conception

Artist's conception

machine has been dragged into a nearby Sphynx with heavy doors, locked from the inside. Later, he is approached menacingly by the Morlocks, pale, apelike people who live underground, where he discovers the machinery and industry that make the above-ground paradise possible. He alters his theory, speculating that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured classes have become the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes have become the brutish, light-fearing Morlocks. Deducing that the Morlocks have taken his time machine, he explores the Morlock tunnels, learning that they feed on the Eloi. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not one of lords and servants but of livestock and ranchers, and with no real challenges facing either species, they have both lost the intelligence and character of Man.

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

In the 1960 film, the motives of the Traveller (now bearing the name George, and a license plate on his Machine that reads “H. George Wells”) are a bit more clear, if not much more sensible. In 1899, George (Rod Taylor), a brilliant physisist, has been offered a contract by the government of England to design weapons. Being a pacifist, he finds this horrifying and longs to discover man in a perfect, peaceful state. Believing that somewhere in the future he will find such a civilization, he sets off through time. He watches the world change rapidly around him until he sees his windows boarded up in the year 1914. Curious, he stops the Machine and gets out. He strolles across the street and meets the son of his friend from the beginning, David Philby

The Morlocks of 1960

The Morlocks of 1960

(both played by Alan Young). He learns that Philby has been killed in the First World War. Obviously, he decides to keep going. Back in the Time Machine, he makes a brief stop in 1940, where he sees London being bombed by the Nazis. He then continues to 1966 (six years in the future at that time) where he sees everyone walking around in radiation suits. He once again meets Philby’s son, who remarks that he saw George on the same spot in the same clothes 52 years before. Sirens begin blaring and every one runs, shouting “get to the shelter!” Philby points to the sky and says to George, “There, an atomic satelite zeroing in!” He tries to drag George to the shelter, but George refuses to leave his Machine, so Philby abandons him and runs for safety. Seconds later, a blast rips through London, resulting in some impressive (for 1960) miniature work. George, narrating, lamants “The labor of centuries gone in an instant!” A lava flow heads for the Time Machine, and George has to rush to activate it before the flood hits. He suddenly finds himself traveling through time inside a wall of rock. He is forced to keep traveling through time at breakneck speed, lest he be crushed. Unable to move his machine in space, he has no choice but to wait for time to wear down the mountain he is inside of.

George meets Weena.

George meets Weena.

When it finally does, he sees futuristic buildings springing up around him, and notes there doesn’t seem to be weather. He asks “had man finally learned to control the elements … and himself?” He stops at the year A.D. 802,701 once again, and meets the Eloi, who in this version are still human, although their frail bodies and pale skin are reminiscent of the creatures from the book. The Eloi still speak broken English (no explanation for this), and have little interest in technology or the past. George is so disapointed by the “perfect” world he has discovered that he berates he Eloi “What have you done?? Thousands of

The Sphynx.

The Sphynx.

generations of men struggeling and sacraficing, and for what? So you can swim and dance and play! I’m going back to my own time. I won’t tell them about the useless struggle, but at least I can die among men!” Upon attempting this however, he finds that his Machine has again been dragged into the Sphynx and he is trapped.

Lambs to the slaughter.

Lambs to the slaughter.

In this version, the Morlocks provide the Eloi with food and clothing, as in the book. However, instead of snatching them one at a time, they use (of all things) air-raid sirens to lure them underground in droves (left). In one scene, the siren cuts off, and the door to the Morlocks’ slaughter house slams shut, denying entrance to the Eloi still outside. George shakes one who seems to be in a trance (below), and the Eloi tells him “it is all clear,” meaning the air raid has ended, essentially.  Apparently, the Morlocks are able to do this because humans are so conditioned from fleeing underground at the sound of sirens ever since 1960. shake

Eventually, a girl named Weena (Yvette Mimieux) leads George to a room full of “talking rings” which seem to be surviving records of Earth’s past. The rings hold the voices of people describing nuclear and other wise horrible wars; the last recording annouces that Earth’s atmosphere has been all but destroyed and most of the human race is fleeing underground to escape the Sun’s harmful rays. A few have decided to “take our chances in the sunlight, however small they might be.” George deduces that those who fled underground were the ancestors of the Morlocks and those who remained were the ancestors of the Eloi.

And so, in both the book and the 1960 film, the division of humanity is caused by a social evil that preocupies the author, resulting in one side becoming a race of monsters that preys upon the other. In 1894, when Marxism was popular among the wealthy elite of Europe (did you note the irony there?), the division was caused by the oppression of the lower classes. This resulted in a kind of ironic justice, when the upper classes became food for the lower classes. In 1960, when everyone feared the Bomb, the division was caused by the continuing folly of war, which finally drove one side underground. The element of ironic justice is

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

conspicuously lacking here, which may be why the script calls for George and the Eloi to triumph over the Morlocks. While the Traveler simply returned to his own time in despair of Man’s future, George follows his beloved Weena into the Morlocks’ slaughterhouse. Once there, he is able to inspire the Eloi to join him in fighting against the Morlocks. Once they escape, at George’s direction, they throw large amounts of dry wood down the wells that connect the surface to the underground to stoke an underground inferno. The Morlocks’ lair caves in. Shortly after, George returns to his own time and tells the tale of his adventure to several collegues who leave, scoffing at him. Except Philby. A few minutes later, Philby and George’s housekeeper (Doris Lloyd) discover that George has once again disapeared in his Time Machine, and that he has taken three books from his library with him. Having searched for his purpose for years, George has apparently found it in rebuilding civilization in A.D. 802,701. And, of course, being with Weena.

Joey Film GeekIn the 2002 version, which also starts in 1899, the time traveller is Alexander Hartdegen, a physics professor who wants his students to abandon the expectations of society and conquer nature with technology. His fiance, Emma (Sienna Gullory), feels like he’s more attracted to model T cars than to her. Philby (Mark Addy) asks Alexander if he thinks Man could ever go too far whith technology. Alex scoffs “No such thing.” That night Emma is killed by a mugger in the park. He decides to use his skill with technology to change the past and bring her back. He works for four years on a time machine. When it’s complete, he

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

dresses in his best and gets into a chair with parasol-like apparati above and below it that spin, generating a sphere around the machine in which time does not pass. The scene changes before we see his journey. He goes back to the night Emma died, meets her, and steers her away from the park. He extracts a promise from her to go home and stay there until morning. Just when he thinks he has triumphed, a model T goes hay wire and runs her over.

The Time Machine of 2002. Also makes a great cup of jo.

The Time Machine of 2002, often mistaken for a coffee maker.

In the next scene, Alex mutters to himself “Why can’t I change the past? I could come back a thousand times; see her die a thousand ways. I can’t find the answers here … not here … not now…” Only then do we see his now archetypal journey forward as the sun becomes a blurred line overhead and trees spring up like gysers around him. We see a pull-back shot in which a biplane, then a twin prop, then a modern jet and finally a satelite fly over Alex, before we see a shuttle landing on the moon. Alex’s attention is caught by an advertisement declaring “the future is now!” and he stops in 2030 (28 years in the future at that time). A pedestrian looks at his time machine and remarks “bet that makes a hell of a capuchino.”

The advertisement is for realestate on the moon, where a colony is being built. Alex walks into the Fifth Avenue Public Library, drawn by all the new techonology, where he meets Photonic (Orlando Jones), a sarcastic computer program who walks inside panes of glass and offers to retrieve data from the library’s system (below). When Alex asks to learn about time travel, Photonic

"Live long, and prosper."

"Live long, and prosper."

rolls its eyes. Disapointed, Alex gets back into the time machine and travels forward another 7 years. When he sees chaos around him, he stops. Military vehicels race through the streets, and the ground shakes violently. Upon dismounting, Alex is accoasted by several soldiers who urge him to come with them underground. He demands to know what’s going on, assuring them “Yes, I’ve been living under a rock!” They tell him that the demolitions for the lunar colony over the past 7 years have changed the moon’s orbit, and caused the moon to start breaking up. Alex looks skyward and sees the moon, much larger than ususal, and riddled with cracks. At that moment a crack opens in the earth. Alex races to his Machine before the crack destroys it, and mangaes to throw it into gear just in time. However, his Machine is rocked by the disaster, and he hits his head, and is knocked uncouncious.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Out of control, the Machine hurtles through time. We see glacers come and go and the ground rise above the timeless sphere and then fall back below it. Rivers carve canyons in the blink of an eye. Alex eventually regains conciousness just long enough to stop the Machine at (you guessed it) A.D. 802,701, before slipping back into oblivion. He awakens in a bed somewhere with a bandage on his head. He walks out into a community of huts built on the side of a cliff. He is confronted by people he is unable to communicate with, until a woman named Mara (Samantha Mumba) asks “Do you know my words?” in perfect English. It turns out that the Eloi in this version have discovered “the Stone Language” carved in stone and concrete relics from our time, and have kept it alive as a tradition. Most Eloi lose the ability to speak it by adulthood, but Mara teaches children, so she has retained it.

Quite different from the Eloi in 1894 and in 1960, the Eloi of 2002 are highly industrious, growing crops, and building windmills. There is no evidence of anything being done for them by anyone else. However, they live under the opression of a fear that they refuse to speak of. Alex suspects it has to do with the reason none of the Eloi seem to be older than their early twenties. He awakens one night from a nightmare in which he is being drawn toward a frightening statue in the forest. Mara tells him “we all have that dream,” but refuses to say more. We later learn that that same night, Alex’s pocket watch was stolen by Morlocks, which explains why the Eloi have no machines. Alex gazes up at the remains of our moon, now a collection of chunks that make a spectacular stream across the sky, and thinks “You were right, David. We did go too far.”

He learns what the Eloi’s unspoken fear is when the Morlocks first attack. The Morlocks of 2002 are considerably more formidable than in the other versions, traveling fast on all fours, and then fighting on two legs. They bear more resemblance to the Uruk Hai from The Lord of the Rings, stalking between rows of their machines. After Mara, along with others, is dragged underground in an

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

attack,  Alex demands to know why the Eloi will not fight back. An Eloi replies “those who … ‘fight’ are taken first.” So between 1894 and 2002, the relationship has made a full transition from ironic justice to shameless opression. The Eloi lack technology not because of laziness, but because the Morlocks use coordinated attacks to keep them helpless. The end result, however, is essentially the same, as Alex finds out. He discovers Photonic again, its panes of glass tarnished and cracked, but still functional (after 800,000 years. Right). Photonic directs him to the statue he dreamed of, this version’s Sphynx. He climbs down into it and discovers a grizly slaughterhouse scene that audiences were spared in 1960. After being captured, he sees Mara locked in a cage and meets the “Uber Morlock,” brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons, though he is well hidden in a great makeup job.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

The Uber Morlock extends peculiar hospitality to Alex, protecting him from the bestial Morlocks, answering his questions and even returning his Time Machine and pocket watch. He explains:

“After the Moon fell from the sky, the Earth could no longer sustain the species. Some managed to stay above, while others escaped below, and centuries later when we tried to emerge into the sunlight, we found we could not. So we bred ourselves into casts.”

The hunter Morlocks are bred to be predators but also to be controlled. The Uber Morlock is of a cast that concentrated on expanding its cerebral abilities. He says that without control the hunters would exhaust the food supply in a matter of months. He also controlls the Eloi and keeps them fearful.

The Uber Morlock calls Alex by name and knows who he is and why he has traveled through time. He also projects pictures into Alex’s head, putting him back in his laboratory with Emma. Alex learns learns that some Eloi, like Mara, are not consumed, but instead are used as“breeding vessels” for Morlock colonies (yuck).

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Finally, the UM explains to Alex “You built your time Machine because of Emma’s death. If she had lived it would never have existed, so how could you use it to save her? You are the inescapable result of your choices, just as I am the inescabable result of you (?).” He then shows Alex the Time Machine. “You have your answer. Now go.” At this point, Alex has to be thinking “I came 8,000 centuries for a lame explanation like that?” This is the first version that tries to adress paradox in time travel, but it completely ignores exerything besides Emma’s death that Alex changed by going back.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Long story short, Alex kills the UM. After outsmarting a creature that has demonstrated the ability to read and controll his thoughts, Alex uses his pocketwatch to jam his Machine. Mara asks “What are you doing with it?” He replies “Changing the future.” The jamming results in a sort of explosion of time, that rusts metal and rots Morlocks in the blink of an eye, and destroys their lair. This, while undeniably ham-fisted, is also undeniably cool. He saves Mara and they live happily ever after.

Rather than inequality or war, this version is concerned with rappidly

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

expanding technology. Once again, the social evil warned of in 1899 creates havoc in the near future that forces part of humanity undergroud to evolve into monsters, who return to feed on those above. The time traveler once again abandons what he set out to find, and finds happiness in the time he has traveled to.

All three versions suffer a certain weakness. The problem with basing a story that covers 800,000 years on a single societal concern should be obvious. 800,000 years eclipses all of recorded history aproximately 100 times. And yet, even the near future is hard to portray acurately. George Pal’s portrayal 1966 looks quite droll only 50 years later. Simon Wells’ portrayal of 2030 will no doubt look the same in 2050. It’s rediculous for a writer to asume that what’s on his mind at the moment will be shaping the world so far down the road. Good science fiction will, of course, include some social critisism, but there’s a reason most science fiction stories don’t take place so far into the future. The book comes the closest to acknowledging this, as it doesn’t try to tell a story that weaves all the centuries together. Wells’ hero simply leaves Wells’ time, goes to a time when the world was unrecognizable, comes back, and tells the tale. However, this also makes the book the least engaging and most depressing version.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

For dramatic purposes, Pal’s version is a clear improvement over the book, because it takes the same basic plot and makes it into a story of rebirth, rather than degeneration, and of good triumphing over evil. It’s rather hard to buy the hippie philosophy 50 years later, however. The 2002 version seems to be the least preachy of the three, and while it does at times sacrafice thought for Hollywood sensationalism, it has some good messages about facing your fears and finding what’s truly important in life. Each version is a noteworthy embodiment of the values of its time. In sum, I would have to say I liked the version from my century the best. But of course, I would.

The book

1960 version

2002 version

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Zombieland

Z-land posterWhat is with all these zombie movies?? Is our culture really so morbid that we can’t get enough of seeing human bodies hacked to pieces? Zombieland (Dir. Ruben Fleischer) is only the latest in a veritable flood of ketchup-splattered, limb-laden flicks from the past few years in which humans are transformed into flesh-eating monsters and terrorize the few souls unaffected by the radiation, virus, or whatever.

The zombie phenomenon began as a trickle in 1968, with Night of the Living Dead (Dir. George Romero), whose two sequels didn’t arrive until 1978 and 1985. Those three movies were later re-made, however, along with new sequels City of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Add to that the Resident Evil series (Dir. Russell Mulcahy) and 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (Dir. Danny Boyle), and it becomes clear that what once appeared to be a few strange but isolated incidents is now an epidemic sweeping the world. Indeed, a trip to the movie section at Wal-mart will turn up no end of little-known, low budget zombie flicks that never made it to theaters, each boasting its “gruesome” and “shocking” qualities. And now, we are soon to be hit with a remake of the Worst Movie Ever Made, Plan 9 fom Outer Space.

Night of the Living Dead; the first zombie movie, and probably the best.

Night of the Living Dead; the first zombie movie, and probably the best.

The term “zombie” originated in Afro-Caribbean folklore, in which the dead could be revived by a “bokor” or sorcerer. By the 1950s, zombism (well, it’s a word now) was caused by radiation, just like everything else back then. More recently, zombism is usually caused by a virus, as in 28 Days or Zombieland.

As the bard will tell you, all fiction eventually becomes a satire of itself. Such was the case in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead in 2004. Shaun is not the best of films, but nonetheless demonstrates a certain comedic brilliance in the way it backhands the zombie sub-genre. Our hero, Shaun (Simon Pegg), is staggering through his mediocre life, working the same dead end job, day after day, having problems with his girlfriend, etc. Which is why the trailer asks “do you ever feel like you’re turning into a zombie?” As luck would have it, Shaun’s world is overrun by real zombies. But even with a zombie apocalypse is in full swing, it takes Shaun a long time to notice that anything is amiss. One morning, he stumbles, half awake, across a street, past a burning car and a distant crowd of zombies into his neighborhood quick shop. He retrieves a beverage from a refrigerator inside, oblivious to the bloody handprints on the glass door, and proceeds to the counter, barely pausing when he slips in something all over the floor. Finding no one at the counter, he drops some money on it and heads for the door. As he’s leaving, the clerk, now a zombie, comes shambling out of the back room. Shaun yells “hey Eric, I left the money on the counter,” and leaves.

Shaun: A hero must rise. From his sofa.

Shaun: A hero must rise. From his sofa.

Shaun and his friends survive one scene by pretending to be zombies; something that Zombieland borrows. Perhaps uniquely among zombie movies, Shaun ends with the crisis actually being solved by the authorities – and the zombies being employed in the service industry. The final scene is of Shaun playing video games with his roommate, who is now a zombie and chained to the wall, lest he take a bite out of Shaun. The point of it all being: If the recently dead did reanimate and seek to feast on human flesh, things really wouldn’t be that different from the way they are now.

But is that such a fresh message? Zombie stories always implied that civilization was inherently fragile and left us wondering if humans were that different from zombies. Dawn of the Dead takes place in a shopping mall, after all. Heck, zombie fiction was probably spawned by the breakdown of societal relations.

Zombieland is definitely more comedy than horror. It’s not even scary, unless you count the occasional cheap shock (industry term for when something jumps out at you). I laughed pretty hard, though. It’s hard to believe a movie that goes through so many drums of corn syrup could be this lighthearted. The main part of the action kicks off in Garland, Texas (“it might look like zombies destroyed it, but that’s just Garland”), where we meet our narrator (Jesse Eisenberg), who identifies himself only as “Columbus,” the city he’s from. He explains his rules for surviving Z-land, which are superimposed on the screen as amusing graphics. He then has a chance to demonstrate them in an encounter with three zombies (below).

Columbus practics Rule 3: Beware of bathrooms.

Columbus practics Rule 3: Beware of bathrooms; only one way out.

This 3D text actually provides a major source of entertainment for the film, being knocked over by running characters and spattered with gore.  You kind of have to see it to appreciate what I’m talking about. Columbus, a virginal nebbish who spent his pre-Z-land life playing World of Warcraft, comments “I might seem like an unlikely survivor, with all my phobias and irritable bowel syndrome, but I have the advantage of not having any family connections or close friends.” However, as he trudges down an abandoned highway, he has to admit, it would be nice to see a familiar face, or just any face without blood dripping from its lips and bits of flesh between its teeth. His wish is granted when he meets Tallahassee, a gun-slinging, whisky-swilling, zombie-killing machine (Woody Harrelson). No sooner have the pair begun to get along than they meet Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who swindle them out of their guns and transportation – time after time. Once again, it seems that even those unaffected by the virus are behaving like zombies – as Sweeny Todd put it, man devouring man. Columbus comments, “I’m not sure which was more depressing, the fact that all my family and friends were gone, or that fact that I’d never really had a family.”

Zombie kill of the week?

Zombie kill of the week?

Z-land diverges from from most of the sub-genre however, because amid all the gore, what it’s really about is the forming, not the destroying, of relationships. After risking his life to save Witchita’s, Columbus concludes “In Zombieland, if you don’t have somebody, you might as well be a zombie.” It’s an odd feeling as the credits roll, and you suddenly realize that what you just saw was actually a feel-good movie.

This flick has some genuinely fun moments, including one of the cleverest cameos I have ever seen, and a climactic scene in which Tallahassee runs through an amusement park with a huge arsenal, doing what he does best. All this, of course, is set amidst a giant playground of unlocked doors and all manner of goods and material comforts, abandoned by man kind. Maybe that’s what it is about all these zombie movies: the thrill of having everyone else out of the way and the world at your fingertips. Plus there’s the allure of a fun war – no remorse about “killing” the enemy. I have yet to meet a reanimated corpse or virus-induced cannibal in real life, but I think with our materialism and violent tendencies, a zombie apocalypse would be the least of our worries.

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