February 05, 2010


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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Who knew a zombie apocalypse could be funny? Sure, Shaun of the Dead was a riot but it kept its destruction to a relative minimum. Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland turns the entire United States into an infested wasteland, and plays the whole situation for laughs.

Most of it, anyway.  A few jarring attempts at emotional drama nearly derail the film, but they are infrequent enough to be forgivable. Most of the time, the focus stays on the nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the least likely road warrior imaginable, who is trying to reach his hometown (like all the characters, he has named himself after his city of origin). By following rules that most zombie movie characters ignore (i.e. “always check the back seat”), he has managed to stay alive longer than many of the reckless tough guys.

On the road, he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), whose two remaining pleasures in life are killing the undead and searching for the world’s last stash of Twinkies. They eventually team up with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are trying to reach a favorite amusement park in California. After a hilarious side trip to the mansions of Beverly Hills, the group finds the park — followed by half the zombies in SoCal.

Fleischer alternates between horror movie inside jokes and the kind of gross-out humor that would make Sam Raimi jealous. Aside from those useless dramatic moments, Zombieland holds together surprisingly well, considering how little really happens. Plus, there’s a zombie clown.  How can you not love that?

Extras: Commentary with Harrelson, Eisenberg, Fleischer, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; deleted scenes; production and special effects features; Blu-Ray has a picture-in-picture track, MovieIQ trivia & a digital copy. (R) Rating: 3.5 —LL

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell might have seemed funnier if it hadn’t come out a few months after the far more imaginative and amusing The Hangover. Like the previous movie, it features a trio of gents (if you can call them that) who decide to get loaded and wild out of state. While the characters in the previous film had their issues (it was hard to tell if Zach Galifianakis was a vertebrate, much less human), they were just likable enough for viewers to hope they got out of their self-inflicted catastrophes.

That’s not the case in this reworking of Tucker Max’s autobiographical frat lit short stories. The character that Max names after himself comes off as a shallow, selfish oaf instead of a sly, if inebriated, debaucher. As played by Matt Czuchry (The Gilmore Girls), Max is the sort of fellow who’d like to seduce comely young women but fails miserably despite his baby face.

The script by Max and Nils Parker retains some of the biting wit of his tales but thankfully tones down some of the troubling misogyny. And in an interesting touch, the two give most of the wisecracks to the supporting characters instead of Max, which makes his on-screen avatar seem even more of a clod. As Max’s caustic best friend, Jesse Bradford (Bring It On) and Marika Dominczyk, who plays an equally acid-tongued stripper, are the only performers who get any traction out of the material. Bradford’s maniacal glee at consuming a McGriddle-like pastry comes straight from the book and is the one thing that hasn’t been lost in the adaptation processes.

The film is indifferently directed by Bob Gosse (Niagara, Niagara). Visually, the movie looks cheap and flat. Then again, does a movie whose centerpiece gag involves the inability to control bowel movements need flashy images?

Extras: R and Unrated versions, a cornucopia of outtakes, a few of which are better than the stuff that made the final cut. Oh, and there are trailers for other marginal films. (R) Rating: 2 —DL

Love Happens

There’s about half of a good movie in Love Happens. It’s about widowed self-help guru Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), who isn’t dealing with his grief as well as he lets on. As he conducts a seminar in a Seattle hotel, he is pushed to confront his personal baggage, even while he helps others do the same. Eckhart is terrific, and he has some great scenes with John Carroll Lynch, who plays one of the seminar attendees.

Director and co-writer Brandon Camp isn’t content to make a solid personal drama, and that’s where the other half of the film comes in. Burke meets Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), a likable florist who instigates much of Burke’s soul-searching, and shows him the possibilities of an honestly lived emotional life

Aniston can do this kind of quirky, no-nonsense character in her sleep, and she almost has to.  Eloise just sort of appears, as if fulfilling a movie romance quota. There’s nothing wrong with Aniston’s work here, and she and Eckhart make a decent couple, but it’s too perfunctory. You can almost hear the studio execs demanding a love interest to boost the box office. If Love Happens had been an independent film, it might have stayed with Burke’s story and done something truly impressive. A Hollywood film needs a love story, though, and no one can stop that from happening.

Extras: Deleted scenes; commentary by Camp, co-writer/producer Mike Thompson and producer Richard Solomon; a feature on the movie’s numerous digital effects (it was shot in Vancouver). (PG-13).  Rating: 2.5 —LL

The People Speak

When radical historian Howard Zinn (author of the influential 1981 A People’s History of the United States) died two weeks ago at the age of 87, he left behind such a voluminous body of work. Trying to cram it into a simple cable special seems a daunting task. But with The People Speak, Zinn manages to make an effective introduction to his accounts of how ordinary citizens stood up to authority and ended up changing the destiny of the nation.

Originally broadcast last year on The History Channel in a shorter version, The People Speak features a genial and remarkably energetic Zinn narrating the outlines of the American story while actors recite the words of famous or wrongly forgotten figures from the past. Zinn doesn’t necessarily present new information, but he focuses on the tales and perspectives that have been left in the margins. For example, when Zinn and the cast quote Mark Twain, they recount his novels and humor writings, but they also include his harsh criticism of the Spanish-American War.

Zinn’s work sold two million copies and influenced Matt Damon (who name checked Zinn in Good Will Hunting, sparking new interest in the book) and Bruce Springsteen. While it might seem odd to have prosperous A-list actors reciting the words of “common” Americans, it’s hard to resist the opportunity of having Morgan Freeman and Kansas City’s own Don Cheadle each reciting some powerful remarks by Frederick Douglass or hearing Viggo Mortensen reading the laments of a tax protestor during the late 18th century. The latter sounds eerily timeless.

The special also features some terrific musical numbers from the periods described in the film performed by contemporary musicians. John Legend sings a stirring rendition of “No More Auction Block,” and Eddie Vedder’s low grumbling voice is surprisingly clear as he bellows out Bob Dylan’s “Master’s of War.” Zinn may be the only person who can see a continuum of protest songs from Woody Guthrie to P!nk, but it actually works. There’s a separate soundtrack at www.thepeoplespeak.com.

Extras: A making of featurette and some dull interviews with an admittedly astonishing cast. Damon, who gives two readings, has been trying to adapt the book for years, and he and Josh Brolin both share producer credits. (N/R) Rating: 4 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.