The first of those was Zombieland (seen in October 2009 at the Regal/UA Kaufman Astoria 14), which arrived during my blogging interregnum, and which I consider to be a thoroughgoing delight. If it wasn't written with its two leads in mind, it was certainly impeccaby cast with two actors who took full advantage of every opportunity the script had to give them. Woody Harrelson has had a very strong year ranging from his excellent deadpan laconic zombie killer here to the equally laconic but totally different soldier he plays in The Messenger. I'm not sure Jesse Eisenberg is yet capable of bringing life to an inert script; he certainly doesn'tmake Adventureland sing. But this young actor wasn't even 20 when he made Roger Dodger sing, barely old enough to drink when he delivered a performance of confused teenage snarak in The Squid and the Whale, and he does it again in Zombieland. We've seen the humorous horror movie before, from American Werewolf in London to Shaun of the Dead. Eisenberg's voiceover totally nails Zombieland and helps elevate it above even those good movies. It's not perfect; I didn't totally buy it when Eisenberg's character started thinking with the part of his anatomy around two or three feet down from his brain. Perfect, no. But fresh, fun, quick-witted, and a definite one to rent.
Awards season presented us with The Road (seen Saturday January 2, 2010 at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #4) . This was marketed as quintessential award bait, and that's a problem when you get the kind of mixed reviews this one did. On account of the reviews, I was ambivalent about going to see it, but a strong recommendation from Peter V. Brett ultimately pushed me into the theatre, and I'm extremely glad that I saw this. What makes the movie work for me is its pitch-perfect blend of a harrowing post-apocalyptic setting with a heart-warming father-and-son story. The film pulls no punches in its depiction of what the world would be and should be. Horrible things happen at almost every turn. They're often handled with as much directorial delicacy as I think the subject matter could allow, but because we're viewing them through the lens of characters we care about quite a bit, the events have real emotional power. We're not able to distance ourselves. I think this might be one reason for the surprisingly mixed reviews. If you take the topic and make a dull, leaden movie... well, you can call that art, and then easily say nice things about it because of the dulling, distancing effect it has. So David Cronenberg can make you squeamish and get great reviews because you're set apart from it all, and here you don't have that luxury. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as the father, the son is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who isn't entirely immune to a kind of youthful over-emoting but for the most part plays this unnatural role with winning naturalism. Charlize Theron is tender as the mother. And Guy Pearce, who had a brief but powerful role in The Hurt Locker has another excellent cameo here.
And talk about your odd juxtapositions, I also saw a midnight showing of The Muppet Movie, the very next movie in the exact same auditorium, didn't have to leave my seat.
And then finally, we come to The Book of Eli (seen Sunday February 7, 2010 at Clearview's Chelsea, Aud. #9). Occasional commenter Myke keeps questioning my taste in movies so he will be quite disappointed to know he was right to warn me away from this. Here, you've got Denzel Washington as a Mad Max type of post-apocalyptic traveler. I like Denzel a lot and don't miss much that he's in, but this movie does pretty much nothing to show off his star power and charisma. So why did he pick this, and why pick him to waste him? Gary Oldman has some fun in a bad role that's been done 609 times before as a post-apocalyptic villain. The first two thirds of the movie are taken up with a lot of been-there done-that very uninteresting battle scenes. Toward the end of the movie, there's a very nifty twist that puts the movie a little into Sixth Sense/Fight Club territory. I think it may work. Part of me would love to go back and see the movie to see just how well the twist works, which in Sixth Sense is near perfect and in Fight Club really not at all, except to do that would involve having to watch 90 minutes of really un-interesting apocalyptic fight stuff. Furthermore, these kinds of twists work best in movies that have some underlying smarts, while I think this movie is essentially very stupid. Where does Gary Oldman get fuel for his fleet of cars? Why isn't he dethroned when his loyalists are decimated by Denzel Washington? Why doesn't he look to check out that the Bible is for real the moment it's given to him? And then in the crowning stupidity of the movie, after we've gotten the neat Sixth Sense/Fight Club/maybe even a bit of Twilight Zone nifty twist, we get this shot of the precious Bible (no spoiler here that this is the eponymous Book) being tucked on a shelf between The Torah and the Qu'ran. Nobody involved with the movie is aware of the fact that The Torah is the first five books of The Bible, so that it's at least a little bit wrong and I'd venture to say a little more than that for characters to act like there isn't a Bible to be had in the world? OK, yes, the Torah is only part of the Bible, no New Testatment, no Prophets, etc., having a copy of the Torah isn't having a copy of the Bible. But let's just say that a few minutes before the movie was getting totally jazzed about the opening verses of Genesis -- which are sitting on the shelf next to the Qu'ran at the time. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I was much happier afterward to see Dear John (seen Sunday Feb. 7, 2010 at Clearview's Chelsea, Aud. #8). I saw this every bit as much to see Channing Tatum as I'd gone to The Book of Eli to see Denzel. I don't want to say that Dear John is genuinely good, but it delivers totally and pretty much without apology on what it promises. It's sappy but charming. It's almost 19 years ago to the day, also in the Chelsea, that I saw the pretty dreary Once Around by director Lasse Hallstrom, which was followed by the really good What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and that's the kind of career Hallstrom's had, careening wildly from the insufferable to the intriguing to the overly or overtly sentimental. This is well-cast genre fare. There are worse date movies or chick flicks for guys to be dragged along to.