July 26, 2015

28 Weeks Later

Warning: Spoilers abound in the opening paragraph of this review.

I don’t know why I watch zombie movies. They always kill off characters I love. Or in the case of 28 Weeks Later (the 2007 sequel to Danny Boyle’s fiercely scary 28 Days Later), it’s not just the characters but the actors who play them. You basically know that the people played by Rose Byrne and Jeremy Renner—an army doctor and sniper, respectively—are toast, well before they actually get run through the cinematic toaster oven. Whenever an actor I love dies on screen, part of me turns cold on the movie. “Well, who cares what happens now?” I think/exclaim/moan.

As sequels go, 28 Weeks Later is pretty strong. There are the expected irksome plot inconsistencies, but it’s a compelling hour-and-a-half, rife with infected-zombie-carnage and steeped in the apocalyptic mania that possessed the popular culture (not for the first time) during the previous decade. The film opens in the English countryside, where a handful of people are barricaded inside a farmhouse, hiding from the infected humans, who have turned into raging viral cannonballs. One drop of their blood in your mouth, one scratch of their fingernails on your skin, and you become one of them, changing over in mere seconds. And they run—how they run—like the dickens. The thing about uber-strong, hyper-active, running zombies is, there’s virtually nothing you can do. They take what already amounts to nihilistic bleakness and turn it up a notch.

Shortly after the film’s intense prologue, the U.S. military has contained the virus and is now in the process of restoring London. Survivors are being returned to their fair city to a specially contained district, where they’re under constant military supervision. Naturally, the zombie virus reinserts itself into the scenario and all hell breaks loose, forcing another band of survivors, including the sniper and the doctor, to run for cover. But this time, two of the group—a brother and sister—may possess the key to permanent extinction of the virus, in their potentially immune bloodstream.

What follows is a generally satisfying blend of the predictable and the terrifying. The U.S. military presence (the dubious saviors of the first film) goes from heroic to monstrous in moments, and it’s easy to read a lot of geo-political commentary here. 2007 was, of course, in the midst of the war in Iraq. Jeremy Renner was two years away from his career-making performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. He was made for these kinds of parts. Renner has a natural toughness that suits him when he plays a cop or a sniper or what-have-you, but he also possesses a deeply humanizing levity and tenderness, which he can apply to any scene with apparent ease. He’s a marvelous actor (the most likable performer in 2013’s American Hustle). And Rose Byrne is always fascinating to watch on screen. She’s made a name for herself as a comic actress of late (giving gem-performances in Spy, Neighbors, and Bridesmaids), and it’s more proof that actresses can be the best comedians when you see how versatile she is, capable of carrying out the lunacy of Spy or the ferocity of this little number, a perhaps forgettable but ultimately very disturbing movie that deepens the terror of its predecessor.

I do have to mention the shaky camera effect. Danny Boyle’s original also employed this irritating technique, and it had me rather perturbed here too. What exactly are we supposed to get out of not being able to interpret the action of a sequence? Is the shaky camera simply a way around doing good camera-work? My suspicion is that it’s also a cheap way to create a sense of chaos, putting the screws on the audience as much as possible. But to that I say, go back and watch some of the masters and see if they employ the damn shaky camera technique.

Nevertheless, the director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, does mostly good work here. 28 Weeks Later is no embarrassment. It’s entertaining for those of us who like a good zombie flick, and it’s likely to freak you out if you’re at all concerned about this kind of thing happening for real. If it does, I think I’d follow Jeremy Renner and Rose Byrne. They react well in a crisis situation. 


Redemption is the theme embedded within Judd Apatow’s latest comedy, Trainwreck, which was written by its star, Amy Schumer. Schumer’s character, also named Amy, doesn’t believe in committed relationships. She doesn’t care if her men sleep with other girls. She’s not longing for the one great romance that will result in marriage and children and settling down. Amy has a job for a popular men’s magazine called Snuff (run by a real monster, played to absolute perfection by Tilda Swinton); she has her own apartment in the city; she has friends, and a happily dysfunctional relationship with her ailing father (Colin Quinn) and younger sister (Brie Larson), both of which run on a kind of cynical humor which occasionally boils over into genuine meanness (mostly on Amy’s part). And so, we know from the beginning that Amy is going to need to be saved from herself and from her reckless living. It’s really astonishing how Victorian it all is. Amy is almost a Becky Sharp (Thackeray’s deliciously odious heroine in Vanity Fair), taking down the society around her, except, unlike Sharp, Amy ultimately trades in her social anarchy for conformity.

And here is where I want to parse out something. I found Amy (the character) totally irritating. She was genuinely mean to every guy in her life, even the nice one, the nerdy-but-lovable-orthopedic-surgeon-to-the-stars played by Bill Hader. I wanted him to dump her and let her stew in her own misery. This has nothing to do with Amy’s lifestyle and everything to do with the fact that she is a generally unlikable person with whom we the audience are expected to sympathize. (Again, I mean the character of Amy, not the actress Amy Schumer.) Unlike one of those great Victorian heroines, thumbing her nose at the arbitrary and stodgy conventions of society, Amy aims her middle finger squarely at anyone and everyone who tries to love her. 

Of course, you will say, that’s the whole point. She can’t accept love because she doesn’t love herself. She resorts to snarky criticism of others’ work and choices in order to deflect her own fear of failure. Amy diagnoses these maladies herself, somewhere in the course of the more-than-two-hour-long saga. But I don’t care. It doesn’t make this Ebenezer Scrooge change-of-heart story any less harder to take. In fact, I think Bill Hader would have fared better with Scrooge. 

The movie might have succeeded in its redemption story if it weren’t for the fact that everything about Amy Schumer’s comedy—both in and out of this film—works toward a kind of critique of such things as stock romantic comedies where women are dominated by men and churned through the domesticity factory. Amy doesn’t exactly end up a Stepford wife by the finale of Trainwreck, but she does embrace a kinder, gentler version of herself, one who’s also willing to perform a sexy cheerleader dance with the help of the Knicks City Dancers. What’s so strange about this movie is that Bill Hader’s character is such a good guy that he’s the kind of man you’d want your daughter/sister/ friend to end up with. You want her to stop being such a monster to him. But somehow, her "redemption" is never really that. It's more of a self-policing job. And Hader's character becomes her punching bag, so often that we start to lose respect for him to a degree. 

The monster-heroine plot would probably have been fine on its own, perhaps even as low-camp (especially if this had been about the Tilda Swinton character, whom I absolutely loved), but forcing Amy Schumer’s politically charged humor to conform to the conventions of the romantic comedy works against everything that’s funny in the movie. (And there are a lot of funny moments; I would be lying if I told you otherwise.) Trainwreck ultimately re-affirms everything that every other romantic comedy espouses—the acquiring of spouses. And any smart critique of say, the arbitrary conventions of society, falls apart.

What’s really astonishing is the fact that movies today are surprisingly more conservative and conventional than they’ve ever been, especially in the romantic comedy genre. This month, I watched a terrific Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, Ball of Fire (1941), directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Gary Cooper, in which Stanwyck moves in with a bunch of bachelor-professors to escape the police and her crimelord boyfriend, quickly and deliberately wooing Cooper out of his academic impotence. Stanwyck, who specialized in playing untamably reckless women, always gets her men to loosen up, and she never has to undergo the kind of moral purification to which Amy is subjected. And what’s more, nobody makes a big thing of it. It’s just entertaining and clever. Stanwyck’s arts were perhaps never put to better use than in the 1941 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Lady Eve, in which she plays a card shark who cons and then falls for a clueless millionaire snake-handler played by Henry Fonda. Again, she's a "bad" woman right to the end, and there's no sign that she'll become "good" post-nuptials. It seems that, 75 years later, our movies have actually regressed. Amy Schumer is very funny and very talented, and I admire her humor-laced-with-politics. But I wish she and others would take some cues from the Barbara Stanwycks of Old Hollywood, women whose work was always subversive and funny and sexy and complex. 

With LeBron James (who’s very likable, playing himself), John Cena, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, and Ezra Miller.

July 12, 2015


Sometimes a movie arrives just when it’s needed. Dope is the antidote to nearly any movie you’re likely to see this summer. It’s a sharp, imaginative teen comedy about a young man named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who’s a black geek and the lead singer in a punk band which comprises himself and his two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Malcolm lives in Inglewood, California, where his taste and ambitions are constantly at odds with the cultural stream of his environment. Nobody takes him seriously because he doesn’t dress like most of the kids at his school, or act like them, or like the same things as them. Malcolm sports a flat top, is obsessed with 90s hip hop, and wants to go to Harvard, a school that is, according to Malcolm’s teachers, utterly out of his grasp, despite his excellent grades. The movie focuses on the unexpected means by which Malcolm and his friends become drug dealers, and the way they use their outsider personas as protection from suspicion.

Writer-director Rick Famiyuwa has an exuberant love of cinematic storytelling. He’s created a lush mix of characters in Dope, all of them well-drawn, and fitted the movie around them. Nothing feels formulaic in Dope, and Famiyuwa delights in the many surprises that he throws our way. And yet, none of those surprises feels forced or poorly conceived. But they aren’t necessarily realistic, either. People who are sticklers for the tyranny of realism will be challenged by the ridiculous—and wonderful—excesses of Dope.

The film has a lot to say about how we view people of color, how we have one version of a black teenager living in the hood. Even the people appointed as his advocates, like his college advisor, are essentially there to keep him down, to lower his expectations about life. And Famiyuwa, with keen, masterful skill, pulls the rug out from any assumptions we might make about Malcolm. When he discovers a gun and a bag of drugs in his backpack (on school premises, during a routine drug search), Malcolm panics, but soon realizes that his reputation as a black “nerd” protects him from any suspicion of guilt. Malcolm is the good kid. He doesn’t do drugs or go to parties or join gangs or break the law. He dreams big—isn’t cute that he wants to go to Harvard?

But what of the ending, when Malcolm writes an admittedly compelling admissions essay? Is Malcolm using his race as a buzz word to guilt the admissions committee into accepting him? Or is he simply pointing out their own inherent racism? Malcolm’s grades are clearly exceptional, and his entrepreneurial skills, if unorthodox, are impressive. He’s been branded by a white person’s idea of “The Hood” and the assumption that anyone who comes from “The Hood” must be a drug-addled thug. Ultimately, Dope is movie about expectations, and how those expectations expose our shallow perceptions of people. They also allow people to act differently without being noticed, and this can become a powerful enabler. Sometimes, the kids really are the smartest ones in the room, and Dope quickly establishes itself as one of the smartest (and most satisfying) teen comedies in recent memory.

With Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga, Blake Anderson, A$AP Rocky, Keith Stanfield, Rick Fox, Amin Joseph, and Forest Whitaker.

July 10, 2015

Ball of Fire

When Barbara Stanwyck takes the stage--playing a nightclub singer named "Sugarpuss" who sings "The Drum Boogie"--there's nowhere else I'd rather be. In Ball of Fire, which was directed by Howard Hawks, she's as unabashedly seductive and funny as she was in The Lady Eve, although Ball of Fire isn't quite as brilliantly conceived. It is, however, a perfectly charming comedy, in which the beleaguered Sugarpuss takes it on the lam and takes up digs with a bunch of confirmed-bachelor-professors working on an encyclopedia. The youngest of the bunch, Professor Potts, is played by Gary Cooper, and he's currently doing an involved study of contemporary slang; he meets Stanwyck as a potential field study, never suspecting to fall in love with her. Cooper perfectly plays the charmingly awkward and bumbling brainiac type, just as Henry Fonda did in Lady Eve. Stanwyck has him eating out of her hand soon enough, charming the other seven old men too, for whom she is somehow both beloved niece and sympathetic seductress. "That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple," snarls the persnickety housekeeper Miss Bragg. But what a topple.

With Dana Andrews, Richard Haydn, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonard Kinskey, Aubrey Mather, Dan Duryea, Ralph Peters, Kathleen Howard, Allen Jenkins, and Mary Field.