(On TV, July 2017) Writer/director George Romero may be acknowledged as a defining figure of the zombie horror subgenre, but his movies became steadily more generic as time went on. Some of this can’t be blamed on him as much as the subgenre evolving beyond Romero’s vision. His fourth zombie film, Land of the Dead, was released in 2005, for instance, a year that saw somewhere between 22 and 28 other zombie movies. That’s also one year after 2004, an acknowledged peak year which saw the release of such modern zombie classics as Dawn of the Dead (remake) and Shaun of the Dead, and arguably the start of a zombie craze that hasn’t yet abated. In that context, Land of the Dead feels … ordinary. Taking place years after the zombie apocalypse, it revolves around downtown Pittsburgh, in which a zombie-free haven exists for surviving humans. Adding to the drama, Romero sets up a conflict between rich and poor humans which inevitably leads to barriers being broached and an inevitable bloodbath. John Leguizamo is remarkable as a character who comes to appreciate the limits of his social class. Otherwise, it’s the kind of second-generation zombie story we’ve seen elsewhere (most notably 28 Weeks Later): the living can’t live with each other effectively enough to fight the dead, the centre does not hold, and the dead win. Land of the Dead is relatively effective in that it has themes, some wit, some imagination and intentions that go beyond “just another zombie movie”. But there are limits to its effectiveness, especially in a sub-genre that has seemingly been strip-mined in the past decade and a half.
(On DVD, February 2017) While I gather than Carlito’s Way was only a middling financial and critical success back in 1993, it’s one of those films that grow even better with time. I have a few theories as to why the decades have been kind to the movie. For one thing, I think it’s the kind of top-class crime thriller that were omnipresent for a while, and then not so much. So what if it’s similar to Scarface and The Untouchables? Those movies were awesome! In 2017, Carlito’s Way is a quasi-refreshing throwback to muscular crime cinema back when it was synonymous with A-class budgets rather than straight-to-video releases. It features Al Pacino in terrific younger form (sporting a glorious beard), which is best appreciated now rather than at a time when he was almost over-exposed. It benefits immensely from director Brian de Palma’ kinetic camera work, swooping and gliding into scenes, cackling as it prepares straight-up suspense sequences and delivers all of the cheap thrills that we can expect from a crime thriller. Carlito’s Way may not measure up to Scorcese, but it has strong thrills to deliver in an endearing exploitative way. David Koepp’s script cleverly packs a lot in a decent time, taking a look at a killer trying to get out of the business but predictably failing to do so. Sean Penn is almost unrecognizable (yet iconic, as per GTA: Vice City) as a completely crooked lawyer, while Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman turn in good supporting performances. (Pre-stardom Viggo Mortensen even shows up in a non-glamorous role as a disabled ex-gangster) It all adds up to a slick, enjoyable crime drama the likes of which we don’t see enough these days. Carlito’s Way has grown in stature over the past quarter-decade and a fresh look at it today only confirms that it’s a strong film.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Once you get past the pseudo-intellectual nonsense and fancy vocabulary, one of the basic questions to be answered by movie criticism is this: Has this movie made me happier than I was before watching it? It’s not a universally-applicable test (I’m not seriously proposing that all great movies are feel-good movies) but it’s one of the big ones. And it gives me some pleasure to report that among Chef’s best qualities is that it’s a movie that made me happy. It’s a bubbly, charming, energetic-but-relaxed comedy about food, relationships and criticism as a path to self-improvement. The plot isn’t exactly tight, but it is about a chef forced to make life-altering changes in the wake of a disastrous restaurant review and ensuing social media kerfuffle. From Los Angeles to Miami and back again via New Orleans and Austin, Chef offers a loose comedy with quirky characters, up-to-the-moment techno-social commentary, fantastic food imagery and an unapologetic upbeat ending. Jon Favreau not only stars, but produces, writes and directs the film, which raises all sorts of fascinating questions about vanity projects with valid artistic intentions: It’s hard to see this tale of chef reinventing himself by going to his roots and avoid comparison with a filmmaker with three massive Hollywood movies under his belt going back to his independent film origins. (Note to Favreau: I’ll take one fresh Chef over ten reheated Cowboys versus Aliens.) Not only is Favreau reaffirming his directing credentials with a lower budget (the film is a breeze to sit through), but his credibility is current enough to be able to attract an astonishing cast in supporting roles from Robert Downey Jr to Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman to Oliver Platt. Sofia Vergara has a rare non-irritating role, while John Leguizamo turns in one of his most likable performances to date and ten-year-old Emjay Anthony features strongly. The script may not be fined-tuned (the episodic structure can feel disjointed and the ending, as positively-happy as it is, feels abrupt) but it hits a likable tone strongly supported by a peppy soundtrack. Chef is one of those (too-rare) films that make you happy, make you feel alive, make you feel as if everything is fine with cinema.
(On DVD, February 2012) There’s a lot to dislike about Vanishing on 7th Street, but before truly giving the film the critical savaging it deserves, let’s take a moment to point out what does work: Much of the first fifteen minutes. As our lead characters discover themselves (nearly) alone in a deserted Detroit when people have all spontaneously disappeared leaving behind their clothes, there’s an aura of mystery over the film’s premise and a few effective visuals along the way. An enigma is set up, promising an explanation. But, as soon as the film clumsily jumps “three days later”, doubts appear about its good intentions. As it soon becomes obvious, Vanishing on 7th Street isn’t interested in answers. In fact, its lack of interest extends to such things as internal consistency, continuity or compelling characters. Not only are there no answers, but the mechanics of what’s happening are wildly inconsistent, and often hand-waved with unknowables. Laws of physics change, and the plot rules are blurry enough that viewers stop caring about what’s happening on-screen. It’s not even clear that there’s a threat of sorts –or what the shadow figures are doing, exactly. Once dark jousts with darker as a cinematography motif, it’s hard not to roll eyes and laugh at the ineptness of the results. By the middle of the film, the characters are so irritating that they might as well die sooner than later: I have seldom been less interested in Thandie Newton than in this film, and even an energetic performance by John Leguizamo (as a character who comes back from the dead for no reason whatsoever) isn’t enough to redeem the film. By the time the credits wrap up, Vanishing on 7th Street earns a one-way trip to the “bad straight-to-DVD horror” shelf. As far as the extras go, the half-hour interview with the director confirms that the filmmakers had no interest in offering answers; left unknown is their lack of ability is delivering anything more compelling than a first-act mystery.