‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is at Its Best When It Fully Embraces Its Possible Irrelevance

1 Comment

CREDIT: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch, Avan Jogia

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for All the Fluids That Spew Out in the Zombie Apocalypse

Release Date: October 18, 2019

There’s a running gag throughout Zombieland: Double Tap in which Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) attempts to secure the title of “Zombie Kill of the Year.” He can never seem to quite pull it off, as his companion Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is on hand to helpfully inform us of some other recent dispatch of the undead that was just a little more impressive. This begs the question, in a post-apocalyptic world in which all mass communication has been decimated, how is word about these kills spreading so quickly and seamlessly? By Columbus providing this info via voiceover narration, there is an implication, perhaps unintentional, that he is somehow omniscient. Or maybe the conceit is that he is telling us this story years later, although that does not appear to be the case, what with the sense of immediacy to his dictation.

This is not the most worrisome concern to have, but it does stand in contrast to the original Zombieland, in which everything clicked into place just so, both comedically and logically. Double Tap has several elements like this that feel important but ultimately aren’t terribly so. The jokes are given greater emphasis, but even more essential is an investigation into a nagging sense of malaise. How do you go on living in a world overrun by zombies when killing zombies has become second nature? In addressing this question, the ten years that have passed since the first Zombieland are actually an advantage.

While people do die and new zombies are turned in this world, we are never worried that the makeshift family of Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) will fall victim to the carnage. And they seem to know it. They’re living it up in the White House, treating every day like it’s Christmas, but that sense of security is only engendering mid-life, or quarter-life, crises. Columbus and Wichita especially are struggling with the realization that they have already accomplished all they need to in life by their thirties. I wish that the script had dug into these neuroses a little more deeply, but this movie works as well as it does because this malaise is the foundational conflict.

Now, to fully enjoy Double Tap, you’ll have to have a pretty big appetite for the same self-aware self-deprecating jokes being told over and over and a full embrace of certain stereotypes that have already been thoroughly deconstructed. But there’s a lot more melancholy than you might expect from a past-it-sell-by-date carnage-filled zom-com. If that’s not quite a Zombie Endorsement of the Year, it’s at least enough to assure us that our undead imaginations haven’t been fully depleted yet.

Zombieland: Double Tap is Recommended If You Like: Staring into the void, while repeating your favorite jokes over and over again

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rules

Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Woody Harrelson/Billie Eilish

1 Comment

CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

This is my tenth season reviewing SNL episodes, and it feels like a good time to mix up the format. So that’s what I’m doing for Season 45! Here’s how it will work: I’ll provide my thoughts on all the sketches, while also kind of painting the story of me watching the show.

We kick off Season 45 with a couple of new featured cast members (it was almost three, but getting into that is a whole ‘nother thing), Mr. Woody Harrelson hosting for the fourth time, and young’un Billie Eilish making her musical guest debut. I ran a 10-mile race early on Sunday, so this was one of those times where I went to sleep early on Saturday, watched a couple of sketches early in the morning, and then caught the rest after my race. It’s actually a formula for plenty of laughs!

More

This Is a Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Leave a comment

(c) Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

This post was originally published on News Cult in May 2018.

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Director: Ron Howard

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers and Space Derring-Do

Release Date: May 25, 2018

Nobody can play Han Solo as iconically as Harrison Ford, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Now that we actually have Alden Ehrenreich’s version to dissect, we can render a more practical verdict about just how successful he is or isn’t. And while indeed young Solo has nothing on classic Solo, the task is not necessarily as impossible as originally advertised, which we know because we do not have to look far to find someone else pulling off that goal, as Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian manages to be just as iconic as, if not more so (time will tell, ultimately), Billy Dee Williams’ version.

To be fair, Glover probably has the easier task, insofar as it is the less restricted one. While Ford is one of the major players in four Star Wars films, Williams only has about 15 minutes of screen time across two episodes. Ergo, Glover has plenty more freedom to fill in the blanks and create new blanks never hinted at previously, while Ehrenreich is locked into coloring necessary backstory, like earning the life debt that Chewie owes him and making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. But the biggest difference is in the quality of preparation. Glover feels like someone who has been auditioning to play Lando his whole life, while Ehrenreich feels like someone who has been training to be an actor, and maybe more specifically a movie star, but not so specifically Han Solo in particular. That specificity and passion is almost certainly necessary to pull off the job of simultaneously paying homage to a famous character and making it one’s own. Maybe there are some folks out there who have been playing Han Solo in front of the mirror their whole lives, but Ehrenreich is probably not one of them. He gets the job done, but he does not take it to the next level.

Solo does not rely entirely on checking off a bunch of backstory checkpoints. Like any well-bred Star Wars movie, it is populated with a menagerie of diverse characters. As far as the new faces go, most prominent are Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s childhood friend and partner-in-crime, and Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, Han’s smuggling mentor. They are appropriately cast, but they feel like could be any Emilia Clarke or Woody Harrelson character, as opposed to the roles of a lifetime that add new definition to what a Star War can be. Same goes for crime lord Dryden Vos, who can be easily and unfussily added to Paul Bettany’s murderers’ row of villain roles.

But not-so-quietly revolutionary is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s motion-capture performance as L3-37, Lando’s feisty, herky-jerky droid companion. Waller-Bridge’s success comes from a starting point totally opposite of Glover’s, as she had never seen a Star Wars film before auditioning. Consequently, her performance is not beholden to any droids that have preceded her. She takes full advantage of the individuality inherent to a set of beings that seem to have plenty of free will despite also being conditioned by their programming. Her relationship with Lando suggests an open-minded (pansexual even) imagination that might as well be explored in a cinematic universe as vast as this one. And therein lies a template for keeping fresh the perhaps infinite number of future Star Wars: anchor them in a deepened spin on the familiar while introducing a high-risk, wholly fresh concoction.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is Recommended If You Like: Community’s Star Wars homages, Watching poker when you have no idea what the rules are, Human-cyborg relations

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Parsecs

 

This Is a Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 4.5 out of 5 Dentists: http://newscult.com/movie-review-seeking-justice-for-a-cold-rapemurder-case-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-is-the-timeliest-dark-comedy-of-2017/

This Is a Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Leave a comment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Violence Shot Artfully Enough to Avoid an R Rating

Release Date: July 14, 2017

The prequel/reboot Planet of the Apes series has been doing a fine job at that most pervasively needless of tasks: providing origin stories for elements from the original that never needed to be explained. The trick is to make those explanations part of their own particular tales that are compelling enough on their own. In the latest entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, the spotlighted origin is humankind’s loss of speech, which is essentially something that inexplicably and uncontrollably just starts happening, but is also presumably related to the virus from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that began to wipe out humanity and boosted apes’ intelligence. Far from a minor plot point, this provides the essential motivation for those who seek to stand in the way of nature.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rest of the apes have been living mostly happily in the civilization they have constructed for themselves, but the peace between species they have brokered has only ever been uneasy. There is a vestige of what remains of intelligent humans that is intent on reasserting their dominance, most ferociously in the form of Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless fighter who justifies his tactics with a form of genetic engineering tinged with desperation. When a sneak attack by McCullough kills several of Caesar’s loved ones, the stage is set for an ultimate standoff. While Caesar’s reaction flirts somewhat uncomfortably with revenge territory, the conflict remains more generally compelling, as his larger motivation is protecting apes and simply wanting this war to end. The bleakness of ending war with more war (even in self-defense) is not ignored.

War for the Planet of the Apes can easily be read as a metaphor in which a dominant social group finds the status quo upended and tries to swing the pendulum back. Those moments can easily be found now and at many other points in the history of society. But what is remarkable is how much that is a side effect. This series is primarily devoted to commenting upon and analyzing itself more than anything else. That commitment extends to the thorough chilliness of the vision. It is never specified if the setting is in a particularly wintry area, or if the future is eternally snowy, or both. Either way, the effect is oppressive. There are moments of levity (most memorably from Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a jittery former circus animal who has gone a little loopy from cabin fever), but overall, this is a film that takes days to swallow to bear appreciating its majesty.

War for the Planet of the Apes is Recommended If You Like: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, The Searchers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Machine Gun-Toting Apes

This Is a Movie Review: Wilson

Leave a comment

This post was originally published on News Cult in March 2017.

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer

Director: Craig Johnson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Fun-Loving Sociopathy

Release Date: March 24, 2017 (Limited)

If you found out that you had a daughter that you thought was aborted but was actually given up for adoption, would you track her down to cheer her on from afar like a proud papa? If so, that is an understandable instinct, but you might want to be discrete, considering the typical legal arrangements that prevent birth parents from contacting their adopted children. But Wilson the movie and Wilson the Woody Harrelson-portrayed title character have no such reservations. Instead, this father introduces himself to his long-lost daughter by mercilessly beating up her bullies.

Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay), Wilson the film at first glance appears to be a Misanthropist’s Guide to Life. But while Wilson the man does have major problems with humankind’s typical priorities, he actually does like people. He just wishes they would not so readily buy into the boring routine that society prescribes. His love is a playfully confrontational one. Plenty of people adopt a cutesy singsong voice when talking to dogs; but it is those few among us like Wilson who use that voice to spout some insane life philosophy. Or at least, it sounds like insanity to everyone else, but for him, it is the only way to be.

Harrelson emphasizes Wilson’s fun-loving nature; his joy is infectious, but also dangerous. He can string you along for a weekend getaway, or a delightful afternoon at the park, but he could also lead you behind bars. The legal troubles that bedevil Wilson feel unfair, but also perfectly understandable. Whatever dichotomy there appears to be here is less a contradiction and more a yin/yang. Wilson is not railing against phonies – he just wants everyone to loosen up. His film is a slightly unnerving adventure, but you gotta come along for the ride, man.

Wilson is Recommended If You LikeFight Club But Wish It Were More Slice-of-Life, EnlightenedNebraska

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cute Dogsitters

This Is a Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

Leave a comment

the_edge_of_seventeen

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R, But It Should Really Be PG-13 Because We Should Be More Comfortable with the Fact That Teens Are Sexual Creatures

Release Date: November 18, 2016

Some of the most memorable moments of The Edge of Seventeen remind me of RuPaul’s Drag Race, specifically the reality show’s “Reading is Fundamental” segments (which were in turn inspired by the drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning). “Reading” is basically insult comedy, with everyone in the room taking turns as insulter and insulted – so, you know, a roast, but the drag queen version, i.e., bitchier and wittier. But there is also a sense of perfecting one’s craft and being there to support each other. Much of Edge of Seventeen’s dialogue has this acidic streak, even though every character is fundamentally on one another’s side. Woody Harrelson at one point informs our heroine Hailee Steinfeld, “Maybe nobody likes you” – despite being her closest confidante and that line being part of a pep talk to raise her spirits.

Everything starts falling apart right from the start when high school junior Nadine (Steinfeld) discovers her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) hooking up with her brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine declares that Krista must choose between her and Darian; Krista refuses to play along, but Nadine is so stubborn and thus she suddenly finds herself friendless. It is hard for me to relate to this type of conflict, because if one of my siblings started dating one of my best friends, I would be thrilled! They might officially become part of my family! (That specific argument is actually made to Nadine.)

However, I do realize that not all brothers and sisters get along that well. But what is maddening is that as much Nadine frustrates Darian, he clearly wants a good relationship with her. The source of this friction is possibly the death of their father five years earlier. It is implied that Nadine feels alienated from her brother and her exhausted mother (Kyra Sedgwick) because of their different methods for handling grief. She also may be suffering from depression or anxiety, which does not make her self-centeredness any less maddening, but at least it makes more understandable.

I am a little torn about how to assess Edge of Seventeen. Nadine is a supremely frustrating character, constantly making hurtful decisions when she intellectually must know better. But she is also easy to fall for. Part of that is because she is played by the guileless but fierce Steinfeld. A bigger part is the fact that when she actually does realize there are other people who have experienced pain she like has, she becomes a fun person to open up to. I may have to catch a few re-watches at home over the next several years to cement this as a classic, but for now it at least undoubtedly has my attention.

The Edge of Seventeen is Recommended If You LikeCluelessSilver Linings Playbook, Teenagers Played by Actual Teenagers and One Token 30-Year-Old

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Accidental Sexts