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Zombieland: It's All About the Rules, For Better or For Worse

If you have been following my blog and these reviews recently, you must have gathered that during the holidays, I watched movies about as much as I ate, drank, and made merry, which was quite often. For some reason, I sat down to commune with my family, and my brother found Zombieland on one of the pay cable channels. I didn't get to see it from the beginning, and what I saw of it struck me as kind of clever and different, so I decided to seek it out on Netflix to watch it from the beginning, particularly as I lay encumbered by a recent bout of illness. Thus, Netflix instant viewing came to my rescue, and I decided to give this horror-comedy the old college try, even though it's not a typical movie that I would seek to watch on an average movie-viewing occasion.

In Zombieland, two months after a mutated strain of mad cow disease has infiltrated the United States and turned most humans into zombies, surviving college student "Columbus" (Jesse Eisenberg), who is so nicknamed after his birthplace, is on a quest to return to his hometown in an effort to find out if his parents are still alive. After totaling his car, he encounters "Tallahassee" (Woody Harrelson), who is on a similar quest, or, at least, he is trying to find the post-apocalyptic world's remaining Twinkies. The two men agree to travel together and also happen upon "Wichita" (Emma Stone) and "Little Rock" (Abigail Breslin), self-described sisters who manage to con the men into coughing up their weapons and vehicle and who leave the boys with nothing. When they meet up later on a stranded highway and agree to a truce, the group decides to travel to a mystical amusement park called Pacific Playland, a place from Wichita and Little Rock's childhood memories, which is rumored to be free of zombies. All throughout the journey, Columbus narrates the perils and categorizes the survival of zombie apocalypses according to a detailed list of rules he's developed based upon his experiences with the walking dead. Of course, the quartet meet plenty of said walking dead along the way.

Zombieland, for what it is, is an amusing romp based upon a clever, tongue-in-cheek premise that is never short of wickedly satirical jabs at its own genre. The fact that the screenwriters, Paul Wernick and Rhett Rheese, recognized the comedic potential in the premise of marrying an unlikely group of misfits and rendering them the unlikely--and possibly only--survivors of a zombie apocalypse, lent a certain amount of freshness to a typically stale, formulaic film-making exercise that is usually devoted to the thrills of seeing extreme gore or inspiring the occasional scare. Zombieland, thus, becomes a reflection on life, even when the characters are surrounded by the walking dead and particularly given Columbus' fastidious adherence to his book of rules.

Elements of Zombieland infuse the film with that mark of freshness owing to the direction of Ruben Fleischer and the screenwriters' twisted sense of humor. Columbus' rules of survival, sometimes rooted in common sense and wholly applicable to times of crisis, zombie apocalypse or not, and sometimes unexpectedly silly, blithely appear on the screen, not as subtitles but in a cheeky digital presentation reminiscent of the thought balloons in comic strips. Camera tricks and focus on perspectives and oblong angles heighten what sense of horror can be gleaned from the proceeding (the movie is really more about the comedy). More to the point, Fleischer is able to inspire some humorous performances from his leads, particularly from Eisenberg as the skittish and shy Columbus, to guns-blazing, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee as played by Harrelson. Plus, he chose a thoughtful but great soundtrack, including some requisite metal but also some great classic and contemporary rock tunes.

Perhaps, the singular most successful surprise of Zombieland is an appearance by the eternal and sublime Bill Murray, playing, of all things, himself. When the quartet decides to hide out in Hollywood, Tallahassee insists on visiting the opulent mansion of his personal King of Comedy, and the starstruck survivors first meet Murray dressed as a zombie because, you see, he likes to blend in, lay low, and play golf. It just gets better from there, until Murray's equally surprising exit from the picture (which I won't spoil). If the movie didn't incite laughter before this scene, Mr. Murray certainly cemented the reason why this film's quirky sensibility is so engaging and ultimately successful in its execution.

As engaging as Zombieland is, though, the film is still hampered and held back by the nature of the beast. A zombie movie is still a zombie movie, and zombies are only going to be appealing to those who like monsters that keep on coming and never really die. Also, even though Woody Harrelson is hilarious in his character's pursuit of Hostess snacks and Eisenberg is endearing as the hesitant Columbus, the females in this movie are a bit lackluster. Such an underwhelming portrayal is not out of the realm of possibility for Stone, but Breslin has the chops to achieve more, or, at least, showed such potential when she was younger. The movie, then, becomes a mixed bag: something not quite scary and occasionally funny as well as boundary-pushing and yet stalwartly conventional all at the same time.

I'm not a horror movie aficionado by any stretch, and I prefer vampires and demons to zombies when I do take on the genre, but even as there were times that I laughed and found that I liked what I was seeing in this film, there were also times when I felt bored. Fleischer, however, doesn't dwell on a complex plot; the film lasts less than ninety minutes and is a briskly paced cross-country escape from the afflicted monsters. The zombie gore is convincing enough, too.

I think fans of this type of movie will love Zombieland because the film has some great aspects going for it. Even though I didn't love the film as a whole, I loved parts of it, particularly Bill Murray's performance. Still, recognizing what the filmmakers were after and my own viewing preferences, I find myself rating Zombieland, in fairness, a 6.5 on the patented ratings scale, between cute but mediocre and shaky but entertaining. Also, the film does not pass the test of ownership. Watching the film almost twice is good enough for me, even if the film and its unlikely hero Columbus offer some great survival rules, for life as well as for zombie apocalypses.

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