Diary of the Dead is shot through a handheld digital camera as though it is a private home movie. A Winnebago (that great comic device) full of film students heads into the midnight woods of Pennsylvania. The camera introduces us to the film students who un-ironically talk as though they have never seen Return of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or any of the hundreds of zombie movies out there. They have no budget but they have heard that the dead have come back to life and are trying to get "home" to find their families. But no one is alive and they unfortunately have to kill their families (again). Scampering around the Keystone State putting bullets in zombies' heads and exploding one's eyeballs with electric shockers the kids take refuge in a fortified mansion's panic room. All rules have collapsed including the federal government and National Guard which has taken up machine guns and is stealing food from civilians. Casting is not the movie's strong point. Of course it's on par with what is expected--disposable characters with no depth behind their motivations other than good looks and charisma including Michelle Morgan and Shawn Roberts. None of the actors are particularly memorable but are moderately talented in accomplishing what director George Romero tells them to do. One wonders why they aren't more self-conscious about giving soliloquy speeches to a camera with all their friends in the room? Oh well. To see Romero at work is to witness one of the more practiced filmmakers around. His perspective is creative and he gets the audience to pay attention. From his 1968's seminal Night of the Living Dead to his last effort 2005's Land of the Dead Romero has committed his life to telling stories about walking dead people using zombies as a metaphorical tool for the rest of us. Romero's execution is sharp and fluid--and most importantly scary. The first body-munching scenes are as gruesome as they can be. The weakness? Romero's heavy-handed disingenuous ideas about media and technology. They are frankly a little old-codger belonging to someone who fears the benefits of technological breakthroughs. Romero seems to think keeping video diaries can be zombie-like. Curious considering how Romero has made a distinguished career out of base elements of mass media.
National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj shares something in common with another recent equally unnecessary sequel Big Momma's House 2: Its title is an absolute misnomer since Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is nowhere to be seen in his own sequel--just like Big Momma’s house in its sequel. Ah but the title of the latest National Lampoon installment is still the movie’s most intelligible facet. Taj Mahal Badalandabad (Kal Penn) has moved on from being Van’s beleaguered bumbling assistant and is now off to England’s prestigious Camford University to continue his education. He arrives on campus thinking he’s been accepted to an elite fraternity only to be derisively turned down by uptight and arrogant Pipp (Daniel Percival). He’s relegated to “The Barn ” the campus loser dwelling and vows to turn its misfits into winners so he can not only get back at Pipp but also to steal his girlfriend Charlotte (Lauren Cohan). Despite his best efforts to prove otherwise Kal Penn is a talented actor’s actor. He has sold his soul for a few million bucks and to stoner frat-dude fans thanks to the Van Wilder movies and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and its planned 2008 sequel but he has a true thespian’s pedigree. His future is rich with bigger and better roles (especially March’s The Namesake his first dramatic lead). His talent is visible and audible in Taj but so at times is his empty soul like when you can occasionally hear the nuances in his faux-Indian accent. Penn still remains the only reason to watch the movie aside from occasional breast flashes (courtesy of a curvaceous Holly Davidson Sadie Frost’s sister) and he should keep the predominantly immature contingency satisfied. The incredibly beautiful Cohan who had a small part in Casanova shows some promise not to mention far too much class for this movie. But sometimes a National Lampoon movie is the best vehicle for a beautiful young actress to break through into the mainstream. Where to begin on a movie’s flaws that are so vast they’re like grains of sand on a beach. Mercy is reserved for directors who actually try for something different but wind up failing miserably; then there’s Taj’s Mort Nathan who literally tries to be the same (as college comedies of years past)--but winds up failing miserably. Nathan’s only other movie the Cuba Gooding career-ender Boat Trip will follow him around wherever he may descend but his latest offering just barely tops that one. The hopefully ashamed writer freshman David Drew Gallagher is also in need of a serious hazing after this effort. He steals the playbook from movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Old School but truly cannot manage a single genuine laugh. The director and writer together though are a veritable calamity and the movie’s lone joke. Their combined work is uneven unlike ever before--even for a movie that needn’t worry about production blunders because of its fan base. Every time there is an almost maudlin moment of tenderness the duo further hammer the nail in their coffin--that is until Nathan’s next National Lampoon movie (2008’s Bag Boy).
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.