Sunday, March 16, 2014

Zombies, and more

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Observations on a more commercial batch of movies this week.

Dawn of the Dead

I’m a great admirer of George Romero’s 1979 zombie classic, and there is no significant respect in which Zach Snyder’s remake improves on it - unless you give extra points for casting Canadian actors. The decision to change the original’s shambling, braindead zombies into lightning-fast killing machines sums up how the new version tarts everything up, losing Romero’s peerless satire in the process. The first film’s suburban mall, where a group of survivors hide from the zombie plague, was depicted with such peerless detail that I remember the geography more vividly than almost any other movie location; here it’s just a backdrop. The superficial conflicts and shallow characterization in Snyder’s version makes you realize how unfairly Romero’s terse actors were criticized at the time. And so on.

But if you forget Romero (and for that matter, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, another superior film along similar lines), Snyder’s film is actually a better than average action-horror picture. It’s effectively eerie and repulsive (I stared and squirmed), and although set in Minnesota, it sure feels Canadian (it was shot near Toronto, with Sarah Polley and numerous other vaguely familiar faces), which in these circumstances seems endearing. And you know, sometimes you just feel like agreeing with Polley’s remark to the Globe and Mail: every movie should have a zombie in it. Especially in George W. Bush’s America.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Ace screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) is already a semi-legendary figure, but I have trouble warming up to him. He’s a master of structure, and not in a hollow way either; every film takes you somewhere you’ve never been before in terms of both plot and theme. But I’ve so far found them a little cold and ultimately not that relevant to anything I’m interested in (which of course could be primarily a measure of limited horizons on my own part). The latest Kaufman film, directed by Michel Gondry, is the best so far, in that Kaufman’s complex extrapolations seem here to flow from a half-profound (and if not profound, at least beguiling) notion of the human condition.

Jim Carrey plays a low-key, buttoned-down man, who takes an impulsive train trip to nowhere and meets a kinetic woman played by Kate Winslet. They fall into a tentative relationship, but then we shift in time – the relationship is over, and she’s had him erased from her mind using the technology of Laguna Inc., a slightly seedy-looking operation. He decides to go through the same thing, and a team of technicians (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst) carries out the procedure that night in his apartment, while he’s lying unconscious. Except that as the procedure’s in full flight, he decides he wants to retain her memory after all. His buried attempts to fight the machine’s onslaught, mixed in with his vague consciousness of what’s going on around him, and the technicians’ additional entanglements, form a reality/time-bending, impressionistic, surreal web that’s challenging, even by Kaufman’s standards, to the audience’s faculties.

The movie is drawn towards bleak landscapes of ice and snow or desolate beaches: as viewed through Gondry’s loose, grainy style this mutes the story’s potential conceptual overkill. Eternal Sunshine thus forms a poignant, edge-of-heartbreak meditation on human connection.  But the visual grunginess, the patent imperfections of the relationship, and Carrey and Winslet’s refusal to play their roles as conventional romantic figures, keep it from becoming a high-tech soap opera. Rather, the film extrapolates the normal detritus of normal life into a vast psychic struggle, placing the mundane balancing that’s the stuff of relationships under a microscope that somehow illuminates even as it twists and evades. In a sense it’s one of the most optimistic movies of recent times in that it posits how even the most chilling technology may possess some profound redemptive power. 

David Edelstein of Slate thinks this may be the best movie of the last ten years. Others regard it as a movie to be admired more than loved. I have some sympathy with the latter view, and yet in a way that’s a measure of its achievement. The film tangles with the human condition without becoming ingratiating – indeed, it’s unclear whether we’re meant to find Carrey and Winslet particularly likeable, or whether we’re meant to identify with them in the way we do normal protagonists. By so bravely severing the conventional mechanics of identification, the film illustrates the inherent arbitrariness of all relationships, without diminishing their crucial status. Along with any number of passing concepts and felicities of execution that make you gasp, it adds up to quite a show.

Taking Lives

D J Caruso’s thriller, with Angelina Jolie as an FBI agent going after a serial killer in Montreal, seems to have received surprisingly good reviews, citing Caruso’s sharp visual style, the appeal of the Montreal locations, and a good performance by Jolie as her customary offbeat self. These attributes are all there to be seen, but I can’t say the film did a lot for me. It’s yet another over-elaborate premise, with little stand-alone significance, and a “surprise” ending that distinctly isn’t. I enjoyed it well enough, but there’s never a moment when you wouldn’t be better off watching something else. And Jolie’s charismatic self-assurance has its downside – the thematic weight, to the extent there is any, comes from her unwise infatuation with a key witness, but I could never believe she was doing more than toying with him.

Still, the location (albeit filled mainly with estimable French actors like Tcheky Karyo and Olivier Martinez playing Quebecois cops, or else with Americans like Gena Rowlands and Ethan Hawke) earns a rare distinction – two big Hollywood movies in the same week that might qualify at least as half Canadian. But if this were a real Canadian film, how would The Barbarian Invasions’ Cannes award-winner Marie-Josee Croze be languishing in a nothing two-scene role as a pathologist? Only, maybe, if the film were cast by zombies.

Enter...Zombie King

Since I was talking about zombies, I’ll say a few words for a movie called Enter...Zombie King, which I saw on DVD (it played a couple of nights at the Bloor Cinema last year). I know nothing about anyone involved with it except that it features local cult band The Tijuana Bibles. The film reflects a somewhat complex aesthetic revolving around wrestling, topless babes, an odd approach to choosing locations, and of course zombies. The execution often falters (well, to be honest, it seldom gathers sufficient momentum to be accused of faltering), and yet I must confess I thought the movie had its finger on something vaguely admirable. George Romero is credited for “guidance and inspiration,” and the end credits also promote a wrestling website. Somewhere at that intersection, eternal sunshine may lurk.

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