A to Z Challenge – Z is for Zombieland

zombielandLet’s be honest: one of the coolest pieces of music in cinema is the locket song by Ennio Morricone from For A Few Dollars More. The importance of the locket and the beauty of that song and the final showdown in that movie? Seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on film. I love it.

So you can imagine the high-pitched squeal of excitement I made when I heard those familiar chimes as part of the score when Columbus and Tallahassee first meet.

I think that was where I fell in love with the movie, and Zombieland would have to screw up a lot for me to hate it.

Fortunately, it didn’t, and while it’s not my favorite zombie movie, it’s a fun addition to the genre.

In Zombieland, the world’s gone entirely to the zombies (as you might gather from the title). Our narrator is Columbus, an introverted college student who has survived the zombie apocalypse thus far by sticking firmly to his list of rules. At the beginning of the movie, he’s heading north to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive.

On his way, though, he hitches a ride with Tallahassee, a zombie-killing badass, and then they meet up with Wichita and Little Rock, two sisters who are heading west to an amusement park that they believe is completely free of zombies. And as Columbus spends more time with them, he begins to find a life worth living, even after the end of the world.

Surprisingly, I liked Columbus as a narrator (surprising because voiceovers are a dicey proposition with me), and I really loved his rules and the way they show up throughout the movie. I haven’t seen anything Jesse Eisenberg’s been in before, but I really liked him as the awkward, anti-social college student.

Overall, the entire cast did a great job, and I suspect the relatively tiny size of the cast contributes to the sense of isolation we get throughout the entire film. With a bare handful of exceptions, we spend most of our time with Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, getting to know them as they get to know each other.

I also suspect the small size of the cast also contributes to the brisk running time: the entire movie is right at an hour and a half, and so it never really has a chance to drag.

Plus, the final showdown with the zombies at the amusement park? Brilliant. I loved every single second of it.

Where the movie fell a little flat was in its predictability. There were a couple of parts where I looked at the screen and said, “X is going to happen.” Sure enough, it did, each and every time. It made for very few surprises, which is unfortunate because the jumpy parts are part and parcel of a zombie movie.

And frankly, anyone who’s watched a zombie movie before will facepalm at a couple of character actions–characters that otherwise do a good job with surviving in the post-apocalyptic world.

(And it annoys the hell out of me that I have NO idea where they get gas or ammunition. Yes, yes, “say to yourself ‘it’s just a show; I should really just relax.'” I know. But COME ON.)

Despite the flaws, though, I really enjoyed it. The best zombie movie I’ve ever seen remains Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland ranks a solid second place.

Have you seen Zombieland? What did you think? What’s your favorite zombie movie?

A to Z Challenge – Y is for Yours to Keep

yours-to-keepI first picked up one of Shannon Stacey’s Kowalski novels because it was on sale for 99 cents and a reputable source had given it a rave review. I enjoyed the book (Exclusively Yours) with only the most minor reservations, so when the third book was on sale, I snapped it up.

Yours to Keep has a lot of the same things that made Exclusively Yours such a fun read: the family dynamic with the Kowalskis, the fun writing and funnier situations, and some very nice sexual tension.

However, it also has a ridiculous premise, a problem which could have been fixed in five minutes if the heroine had been willing to step up and act like a damn adult. She doesn’t, though, and that marred my enjoyment of the first half of the book, and the rest of it couldn’t quite overcome that initial annoyance.

Sean Kowalski is back from Afghanistan, out of the Army, and ready to enjoy living life on his terms for the first time in over a decade. However, no sooner does he get settled in the apartment over his cousin’s bar than a tall brunette knocks on his door, claiming to be his fiancée. Sean is, understandably, shocked by this turn of events.

Emma, the aforementioned brunette, has told a little fib. Her beloved grandmother, who has been in Florida for the past two years, has been so worried about Emma living by herself that Emma made up a fake live-in boyfriend (specifically, Sean) to give Grandma some peace of mind.

Now her grandmother’s returning to New Hampshire to meet the lucky man. And she’s not just coming back for a few days; she’ll be there an entire month.

Emma wants Sean to play house with her for the month so Grandma will return to Florida satisfied that Emma can take care of herself.

Now, I don’t know about you, but “lying to the cherished grandparent who raised you” does not exactly scream “mature adult,” but hey, what do I know?

As you might be able to tell, having the entire setup for the book predicated on a lie did not sit well with me. Sean’s initial reaction (which was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA no”) was well-warranted, and even after reading the book I still have no idea why he ultimately changed his mind and went along with it. Because we wouldn’t have a story if he didn’t, I guess?

Regardless, after thinking about it a bit, Sean decides to go along with this heap of crazy because, hey, she’s hot. The problem is, he’s now got to convince his entire family—which includes brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ spouses, and cousins’ kids—not to spill the beans to Grandma.

The problem is, I really liked Grandma. We get a chance to spend quite a bit of time in her head and even see her embark on her own little romance, and it’s genuinely sweet. I hated that Emma felt she had to lie about her life to a woman who obviously cares so deeply for her, and it really, really irritated me.

In fact, if a certain plot point hadn’t happened when it did (about 42% of the way through), I may well have put the book down. (In fact, I had told my roommate said plot point had better happen soon—when I was about 30% through—or else I was going to chuck the Kindle.)

The sections with Sean’s family were easily the funniest in the book. As before, the Kowalski clan is a generally loving group, but they’re certainly not above giving Sean hell for this fib.

Plus, the Newlywed-style game all the couples play at a family party about halfway through the book is just gut-bustingly hilarious, as Sean’s cousins come up with questions specifically to trip Sean and Emma up.

Unfortunately, my biggest issue was with Sean and Emma themselves. While I was definitely convinced as to their sexual compatibility, I wasn’t convinced about the rest of their relationship. They spent so much time in their relationship wearing masks for everybody else that it didn’t seem like they’d gotten a chance to really know each other without them.

Not to mention I really, really didn’t like that Emma’s solution to her problem, rather than come clean to her grandmother, was instead to actually LIVE the lie for a month and drag another semi-unsuspecting person into it. Hell, sweetie, if that’s how you solve your problems, no wonder Grandma’s worried about you living alone.

I can tolerate a lot from characters I don’t like if it feels like they’ve sufficiently redeemed themselves by the end of the book. In this particular case, it didn’t happen for me. In fact, it’s a testament to how much I like Stacey’s writing that I was able to continue reading this book even as the main characters were making me facepalm.

This is a difficult book for me to unequivocally recommend. The writing is great, the family is fantastic, there are some very funny scenes, and it really picks up at about the 40% mark. I love that Stacey includes a subplot with another romance, which really gives Emma’s grandmother a chance to shine. But the hero and heroine themselves? Definitely not my cup of tea.

A to Z Challenge – X is for X-Men: The Last Stand

x-men3I’m a nerd. Sure, I’ll enjoy a good thinking movie every now and then, one of those independent art-house releases that most critics seem to fawn over endlessly while eschewing the normal Hollywood dreck, but honestly, it’s the ones that combine big, beautiful spectacle with good storytelling that earn my unending love. Give me swords, siege towers, science fiction, fantasy, mutants, pirates, aliens, epic battles, and a good plot with memorable characters, and I’m a fan for life.

I’ve been an X-men fan ever since the ’90s cartoon got me up on Saturday mornings, and I’m a huge fan of the first two movies. My issues with movie number three, X-Men: The Last Stand, have been well-documented, both in this column and other places. Between a regime change, a rushed schedule, and rampant rumors of what was really going on behind the scenes, it’s no surprise that most fans of X-Men and X2 were more than a little nervous.

From the moment they released the trailers, my firmest feeling was that X-Men: The Last Stand would have some great actions pieces but that the story in between wouldn’t nearly be on the same level as X2 by any stretch of the imagination.

Sometimes it really sucks to be right.

It’s not that the movie’s completely bad. The beginning prologues, where Professor X and Magneto first meet a pre-teen Jean Grey, and a young Angel tries to shave off his wings, are solid and emotional, and they give you hope. The action pieces, as expected, are fantastic, from the Danger Room sequence to the climactic (and much-discussed) moving of the Golden Gate Bridge. And it’s about time they showed Iceman with a full body of ice.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has all the depth of a sidewalk puddle that’s half dried up. Compared especially to X2, it’s a giant leap backward.

The story has so much potential. The humans have developed a “cure” for mutants, which is understandably controversial. Some are lining up around the block to take it, while other are violently protesting its existence. It’s a recipe for some outstanding conflict.

The problem is that it’s never developed beyond the most perfunctory points needed to move the characters from A to B to C. It feels like it was just dashed off to provide a framework for the special effects, and it probably has something to do with the truncated shooting schedule that had them start filming last August.

We get the expected slew of new mutants, but Brett Ratner doesn’t have nearly the ability to juggle the large cast. Most of the new mutants are mentioned by name only in the credits, and it would be a sharp-eyed fan indeed who could find them in the actual film.

Only Beast and Kitty Pryde are given any sort of development. Angel’s barely in three scenes, and seems to be operating in his own plot that only tangentially connects to the main story with the X-Men. Other than that, the newbies are one-note characters who scarcely get screen time.

That might not be so bad in and of itself, but the characters we’ve come to know and love have been replaced by pod people. Few things are more jarring than somebody acting out of character, but it happens more than once here.

Professor X, ever a patient teacher, suddenly snaps that he doesn’t owe anybody an explanation for his actions, sounding more like a petulant teenager than a pacifist teacher. For the first ten minutes or so, Wolverine sounds like he was forced to read somebody else’s lines. Cyclops has gone emo, and he’s hardly in the movie, which is a shame because this time around he could’ve had a decent part. And Storm is practically given free reign of the X-Men. It doesn’t feel like they’re doing a sequel. It feels like they are deliberately killing off the franchise.

Five major characters die, either literally or figuratively (in that they lose their powers), not truly by necessity but just to up the body count. I’m all for not keeping characters safe, but unnecessary death is a sign of lazy writing. “Ugh, this story just isn’t interesting enough. What should we do?” “I know! Let’s kill off somebody!” It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t help.

What’s even worse, though, is when they don’t even have the stones to kill off major characters and leave them dead. (If you stayed, or do stay, to watch the after-credits scene, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) If you’re going to go so far as to kill major characters, kill them and leave them in the ground. Don’t build in an escape clause “just in case.” If they’re that important to the story, they shouldn’t have been killed in the first place.

Admittedly, I’m speaking as both a critic and a fangirl, and I hate seeing the characters I grew up with getting treated this way. The movie is by no means as bad as expected, but it’s not nearly as good as it could’ve been. Casual moviegoers who liked the first two movies probably won’t be as bothered by it, but X-fans will find it hard to make excuses for everything that goes wrong.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.

A to Z Challenge – W is for Wedding Crashers

wedding-crashersLately, it seems that most studios are pushing broad PG-13 movies in the hopes of appealing to the widest possible audience. While you can’t blame them (too much) for wanting to make money, the problem with this plan is that it usually results in them hacking an R-rated movie to pieces in order to get the coveted PG-13 rating. This typically results in a sub-par product that is not nearly as bitingly funny as it could’ve been. Sometimes it’s okay to play it safe, but usually in order to make it big, you’ve got to take a risk.

Thankfully, Wedding Crashers embraces its R rating, and strikes that perfect balance: It doesn’t go for the gratuitous and unnecessary, but stays comfortably raunchy. Although it has a couple of montages that go on for a wee bit too long (the bike ride to the beach springs to mind) and suffers from the clichés brought on by the inevitable reveal, it’s still the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. And when I say “funniest,” I mean that if you have any sort of sense of humor, you won’t be able to breathe for the first two hours.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) are best friends, divorce mediators, and professional wedding crashers, meaning they go to weddings and use the atmosphere and alcohol to bed willing bridesmaids. They crash the biggest wedding of the year – that of Treasury Secretary William Cleary’s (Christopher Walken) daughter – and John falls hard for one of Cleary’s other daughters, Claire (Rachel McAdams).

Jeremy, meanwhile, attracts daughter #3, Gloria (Isla Fisher), and is in over his head before the reception ends. Despite Jeremy’s frantic attempts to get John to leave, the two “cousins” accept an invitation to the family’s beach house so John can attempt to woo Claire away from her ultra-competitive jerk of a boyfriend.

As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.

Said “hijinks” include a quail hunt, a “touch” football game, an extremely interesting dinner involving a vocally racist grandmother, gay bondage, regular bondage, attempted nursing, and a nude painting.

This movie is proof that Vince Vaughn is, to put it mildly, a genius. His humor comes more from biting sarcasm rather than physical comedy (although there’s plenty of that, too), and it is best delivered at the same speed as attained by an Indy 500 car. His mile-a-minute bit on why he hates dating near the beginning of the movie is gut-busting because it’s so damn true, and that’s what got me hooked on the movie.

His character Jeremy is the crazier of the two bachelors, and thus the more interesting. He is bound and determined to continue the legacy of wedding crashing that they’ve inherited for as long as they can.

Jeremy is also the one who gets the raw end of the deal once they get to the beach house: while John tries to get Claire’s attention and make her fall for him, Jeremy is the one getting tackled by her boyfriend, then “nursed” by the slightly psycho sister who now proclaims to be in love with him. The only thing keeping him at that house is his friendship with John. (How good of a friend are you?)

Owen Wilson plays the straight (well, straighter) man. John is the slightly more sensitive of the two, the one who realizes that the two men can’t continue their frat guy shenanigans forever, but is still going to have a good time while it lasts.

He provides the “serious” plot for the movie, with his attempts to get with the single sane member of the Cleary clan. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his share of interesting adventures, though, especially with Claire’s horny mom (a hilarious Jane Seymour) trying to get some action.

Christopher Walken is one of the few character actors whose name on the front of a DVD box will get most people I know to rent a movie, and he plays a great powerful father. He likes John but is petrifying to Jeremy, and one would think that Daddy would be the biggest hurdle to getting with any one of the Cleary daughters.

Another (surprisingly welcome) cameo comes in the form of Will Ferrell, and even though he’s in serious danger of career overkill, he’s at his best when he’s acting like a complete nut, and he’s nutty here indeed.

However, the standout of the cast is relative newcomer Isla Fisher, the actress who plays Gloria. She’s a few cards short of a full deck, and is more than a match for the commitment-phobic Jeremy. The temper tantrum she throws to get her father’s permission for the “cousins” to come to the beach house is classic. Something about a grown woman holding her breath and stomping her feet, while in a formal dress, is comical, to put it mildly.

Gloria seems to have no boundaries, and will stop at nothing in her attempts to bed Jeremy once they get to the beach house. She’s alternately intriguing and terrifying, and it’s hard to decide if she’s sexy or just a lunatic like the rest of the family.

The one thing I hate about these types of comedies are the reveals, because every one is exactly the same. An antagonist gets a feeling that our leads are not what they say, and goes about searching for proof. Then, proof is given at a very inopportune moment, and our lead(s) must ‘fess up or let the antagonist do it for them.

This inevitably results in hurt feelings and a major rift, just in time to provide the major obstacle for the final half of the movie. Of course, that usually leads to a zany and improbable plan to get the love interest’s attention, and then shower them with a clichéd profession of true love.

Gag me with a spoon. Wedding Crashers, naturally, has this reveal and many of the clichés that go along with it, but fortunately it also has Vince Vaughn to lighten the mood and a long-overdue punching after the profession of love. So, you win some, you lose some.

Wedding Crashers is proof that if you want to make something funny, you shouldn’t play it safe. It’s just some good, clean, R-rated fun. Grandparents and young children, beware.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.

A to Z Challenge – V is for V for Vendetta

V for VendettaAfter the twin “mehs” of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the idea of watching something else Wachowski-related was the only big thing going against V for Vendetta. Fortunately, good early word allayed those fears and after watching the movie myself, I have to say it’s just about everything I could’ve hoped for.

There’s no doubt that some people will find the movie controversial, ignoring that it a) takes place in England and b) was based on a comic written back in the 1980s. But the fact remains that it’s a great action thriller that’s intelligent without soaring over the heads of its audience.

In a futuristic England where a conservative totalitarian government has taken control, a meek young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) has spent her entire life being afraid. One fateful night, though, she’s rescued by a mysterious masked man who calls himself V (Hugo Weaving). V is one who has the courage to stand up to the government, and his goal is to motivate Evey and others to do the same.

Call V a terrorist if you want–those in the movie certainly do–but remember that the root word of “terrorist” is “terror.” V doesn’t inspire terror here. The government, on the other hand, does, and there are plenty of examples of that.

They’ve made a theme out of the idea of V versus the actual man. V is not perfect. Though he seems not to have a past he is a man and flesh and blood, and as such occasionally makes mistakes. He didn’t start out wanting to change the country. He wanted revenge, and changing the country became a byproduct of that.

He is single-minded in his mission, but he’s not cold. Somebody like that we only expect to get to know as an idea. Getting to know him as a man, that makes you sit up and think. It’s clear that he cares for Evey from the first time he meets her, and later it develops into something more.

And they never, not once, remove his mask and show his face. (Other comic book movies should take note.) Hugo Weaving delivers a fantastic, sympathetic performance despite it being only voice and body language.

V for Vendetta is also a reminder of how well Natalie Portman can act. As Evey, she’s sort of an embodiment of the current generation of citizens. She’s been scared of the government her entire life, living with the constant knowledge that if she does or says the wrong thing she could disappear forever.

That fear changes through her interaction with V. At first she’s terrified of him, understandably so. But she gradually confronts her real fears, and she stops being so scared. Her shaved head is like an external symbol of that inner change. (Ooh, symbolism and a character arc!)

On the government’s side, there’s Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), the policeman in charge of tracking down V. However, he has the nasty little habit of thinking for himself, and in trying to find V, he starts unlocking secrets that the government has gone to great lengths to keep.

A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin kept springing to mind the entire time I was watching V for Vendetta: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It wasn’t really applicable to the movie so much, but more to the events that led up to it.

Unlike most movies involving a totalitarian government that rules by fear, it doesn’t treat the general populace like “oh, poor civilians, you had no choice in what happened with your government.” It holds the people accountable for their choices in the elections, for trading liberty for safety.

However, it also gives them the chance to redeem themselves, and the chance to stand up to the real terrorists. The people have the opportunity to make the choice if they’d like to continue living safely in fear, or take back their future.

It says something about V for Vendetta that the characters and the themes stuck more with me than the explosions or the action sequences. Those are good, don’t get me wrong. But they’re supported here by a solid script and good characters, and together it makes a movie that will hopefully make people stop and think.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.

A to Z Challenge – U is for United 93

united_93If there’s one thing everybody in America remembers, it’s where they were when they heard that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. It’s our generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor.

To say that it’s a tender subject is the understatement of the decade, and it’s not one that most people want to think about. We especially don’t want to think about Hollywood capitalizing off the tragedy, but when they announce they’re making three 9/11-related movies in the space of a week, it gets hard to think about anything else.

Paul Greengrass’s United 93, about the flight that crashed in the Pennsylvania field, is the first up out of the bunch. There are no actors you would recognize, nor is it a particularly long movie. It unfolds almost in real time. And by it’s subject matter alone, we already know how it will begin, what will happen, and how it will end. And we’re emotionally involved from frame one.

Watching what likely happened behind the scenes, with the FAA, the air traffic controllers, the military, and the passengers on the plane is both gripping and heart-wrenching. The whole thing seems to be filmed with handheld cameras, which give it a sense of immediacy and a documentary-like feel. Whether or not it’s what “really” happened, it feels pretty close.

There’s an edge-of-your-seat tension during the two-thirds of the movie, where we’re not only on United 93, but also with the FAA, various air traffic controllers, and the military. We’re waiting for the terrorists on United 93 to make their move. We’re waiting for those behind the scenes to realize these aren’t normal hijackings, that there is a bigger plan. And we’re waiting for that fateful moment when the planes crash into the World Trade Center and the tidal wave of a response it brings.

We’re not really introduced to any of the people in the film. What background we’re given on them is gleaned from conversation and comments overheard. We don’t really need to have somebody tell us about them, because we already know them. They’re us. Just ordinary people going about their day. And whether they were on the flight or on the ground, trying desperately to figure out what’s going on, their lives were irrevocably changed.

I’m not going to lie. This movie is hard to watch, especially in the last thirty minutes when we’re exclusively on United 93, watching as the passengers call friends and family and try to figure out what to do. Will everything be all right if they sit tight and wait for the hijackers’ demands? Or should they fight back and try to take back the plane?

We see as they find out about the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as it dawns on them that the hijacking is part of something bigger. We watch as these strangers come together to formulate a plan, and loan out cell phones so others can call friends and family to say good-bye and I love you.

United 93 isn’t just a good movie. It’s a great one. It’s a fantastically-made drama, straightforward, tasteful and respectful, intense and emotionally moving. Quality is not the decision maker here. It’s the subject matter.

September 11 isn’t something any of us want to relive. Hell, we already lived through it once and that’s one time too many. But maybe it is time for us to take it out, dust it off, and look back at that day, really look at it. Maybe it’s time for us to stop being scared. Maybe it’s time for us to realize that there are some things in this world that are out of our control, but like those on that fated flight, we can decide whether to sit by or take a stand.

Not everybody’s going to be ready or willing to do that. But if you are, United 93 is more than worth your time.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.