Obviously, it’s never really too early to start watching scary movies in anticipation of Halloween, and if they’re funny as well, how can you lose? Along that line of reasoning, Joe Dante’s zombie romcom Burying the Ex seemed like – pardon the expression – a no-brainer. But while it’s a perfectly agreeable little film, it doesn’t seem to be very much else; far from flaming the passions of my love of horror-comedy, this one seems to be rather doggedly going through the motions. Not unlike the hero’s supernaturally clingy ex, this film seems desperate for us to be in love with it, but just doesn’t have a spark of real life in it to latch onto.
It’s the story of horror movie enthusiast Max (Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive) and his fanatically ecosensitive girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene, from all of those Twilight movies), who have recently decided to move in together. Evelyn is a sex-crazed hottie, but she’s also controlling and manipulative, and Max eventually realizes that they have nothing in common. She’s not interested in supporting his dream of owning his own horror-themed shop, she hates his womanizing half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper), and any time another girl says even two words to Max, she wildly overreacts.
When Max meets his dream girl, Olivia (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective), who owns her own horror-themed ice cream shop (I Scream. The name of the shop is I Scream), sparks begin to fly and Max comes to the conclusion that, uncomfortable as the idea makes him, it’s time to end things with Evelyn. But on the day he’s decided to break things off, Evelyn is hit by a bus and killed.
Unfortunately, Max had promised that he and Evelyn would be together forever, and even more unfortunately, he made the promise over a piece of magical bric-a-brac that came from somewhere, we never find out where, and anyway it’s destroyed as soon as its usefulness to the story is concluded, because it’s that kind of movie. And so Evelyn claws her way back from the grave, horny as hell, super-strong, decaying, and ready to reclaim her guy.
Even though we’ve seen better from Joe Dante – much better, like Gremlins, for instance, or Innerspace – the movie isn’t altogether unwatchable, and from time to time even displays flashes of savage wit reminiscent of The ‘Burbs and even some of the playfully gory gallows humor of Piranha. But it’s also lifeless enough to make you wish that Dante had opted to fully commit to a deadpan genre parody like Piranha or played it a bit more straight to produce a genuine horror creature feature along the lines of The Howling, or anything, really, that would have kept the movie from shuffling along like the cinema of the dead. Even his recent Goosebumps-style offering, The Hole, mostly satisfied as a kind of a family-friendly horror film that evoked nostalgic memories of Amazing Stories and the 80’s Twilight Zone, but with Burying the Ex, it may be time to accept that Joe Dante’s best era as a director is already behind him.
There are some major problems with this film, which, by all rights, ought to be a lot funnier than it actually is. There are plenty of interesting angles that get set up but never fully explored – that some relationships just seem to drag on after the romance has died, the idea of a smothering partner wanting to suck the life out of you (in this case, literally!), and the fact that most, if not all, of Max’s problems could have been avoided if he’d just worked up the nerve to break up with Evelyn in the first place. As it stands, it’s not scary enough to be effective horror, it’s not funny enough to be effective comedy, it’s not sweet enough to be an effective romance… it’s not even crass or offensive enough to be a bro-centric ‘ditch the bitch’ picture. It’s shallow and emotionally uninvolving and, for a zom-rom-com, it’s infuriatingly devoid of any satisfying romance or zombie shocks.
But it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d watch if it came on TV and you didn’t have anything else to do, or if you just happen to have an affinity for zombie movies, or perhaps for Alexandra Daddario, who is as cute as she is inexplicably bland in a role that ought to be quirky and charming. I’m not singling her out, by the way – none of the characters seem to reach their full potential, even as stereotypes. Anton Yelchin is a wonderful actor with inherent nerd charm, but even he seems to be phoning this performance in. Oliver Cooper as Travis is supposed to be a lovable pig, but he’s neither particularly loveable nor particularly committed to his character’s piggishness; he’s not really even offensive enough to make you laugh. Evelyn is supposed to be just the worst, but honestly, she really isn’t that bad; she and Max really aren’t a good fit, but hers needs to be the sort of character that makes you root for the bus, and she just isn’t that level of awful. How bad could she really be if she (grudgingly) puts up with Travis bringing over an endless parade of hot chicks (who inexplicably find him sexually irresistible) for sex fests on their living room couch? Even Zombie Evelyn isn’t that much of a pill, really, until she spontaneously develops a craving for brains after watching a gory film – I guess she just sort of realized in that moment that she was supposed to have a craving for brains, not nookie. She certainly isn’t the kind of bitch-from-the-grave she needs to be to make the movie work. Not even the movie’s soundtrack lives up to its potential – they talk a lot about Johnny Ramone in the movie, but what you get is… The Kobanes?
One can’t help but think that, like Evelyn, it would have been better for everyone if this movie had just stayed buried.
And it is a shame, because a Joe Dante in his prime would have taken Alan Trezza’s painfully thin script and spun some gold out of it. What happened to the guy who gave us the completely bonkers self-parodying Looney Tunes horror-comedy Gremlins 2? This film needed that guy, the subversive maniac, behind the camera… Not the guy who just goes through the motions and doesn’t have the guts to make us chuckle, cry, or cringe. It’s just not enough to cram in cute little horror references and pepper the film with clips from classic B-movies – but even those hover in the background, just out of focus, their presence implied but never really explored. And it doesn’t help that this material was already done much, much more effectively – and hilariously – in the 2014 Aubrey Plaza comedy Life After Beth, which also starred Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, and John C. Reilly. On the other hand, it’s a film that may find a following on the strength of Dante’s reputation, but I wonder how much currency that reputation will carry after a few more apathetic films like this.
The movie did have one surprise for me, though: a cameo from the great B-movie staple Dick Miller. Which was especially surprising to me, since I could have sworn that he died a few years back. Like, it was in the papers, wasn’t it?
Nothing’s weirder than seeing someone you thought was dead turn up in a zombie movie.
I don’t have anything against her, you understand. Certainly not the blazing hatred that burns in my heart for Barbara Streisand.
And truth to tell, I like a lot of movies that Bette Midler happens to be in: Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune… Hell, where Hocus Pocus is concerned I can’t even drink anything when it’s on because Kathy Najimy makes me snork it through my nose. Even Sarah Jessica Parker makes me chuckle uncontrollably in that one (and when in the last 20 years could you say that about her, unrelated to something completely ridiculous she was wearing on “Sex and the City”?).
But Bette… I mean, I know everybody just loves Bette, but… awww, shucks, she just doesn’t do it for me. Lily Tomlin is just more my cup of tea. She’s great in everything. I mean, everything. Miss Frizzle, amirite? That episode of “Homicide” she did? And have you even seen “Web Therapy“? Spoiler alert: You should.
There’s this marvelous little farce from 1988 with the infuriatingly generic title Big Business, a modernization of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of identical twins who, through a chance encounter, are mismatched at birth and go on to live with wildly opposite sets of parents, and who, through another incredible twist of fate, wind up both being named Rose and Sadie. One set grows up in the care of a wealthy titan of industry, ultimately settling in New York City; the other set grows up with dirt-poor farmers and lives in a nowhere country town, but each one of the misplaced twins feels, somehow, that they are missing out on something essential in their lives. They won’t know for certain, however, until circumstances conspire to have the two sets of twins encounter each other again 40 years later, setting into motion an absurd variety of mistaken identities, slapstick misunderstandings, romantic entanglements, and social calamities.
This is the movie where I ‘get’ the thing about Bette Milder being charming and funny and such, because it’s not really a great movie, but it is still hilarious watching her play the sarcastic high-powered bloodsucking corporate executive Sadie Shelton versus Sadie Ratliff, the wide-eyed country bumpkin with aspirations of citified “Dynasty”-style glamour and sophistication. Of course, it’s a given that Lily Tomlin is fabulous both as Rose Ratliff, a hard-nosed hayseed activist determined to save her hometown from the ravages of corporate shenanigans, and her big-city counterpart, the flighty, compassionate, lovelorn Rose Shelton. There’s a fantastic group of actors backing them up – Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Michele Placido, and Barry Primus make up a quartet of mix-n-match love interests, a young Seth Green runs riot as a Rambo-obsessed brat, and great comedy character actors like Roy Brocksmith and Edward Herrmann fill out the supporting cast.
Let me be clear. Loose reworking of The Comedy of Errors or not, this ain’t Shakespeare. This ain’t even 9 to 5. There’s a lot of stale jokes that would set the movie firmly in dud territory if they had to survive on their own merits. There’s a lot of contrived situations that you just have to see coming a mile off – when city Sadie, for example, starts getting romantic and racy with an Italian businessman, is there any doubt that the poor fellow will encounter innocent country Sadie minutes later and wind up utterly confused? Of course not. And look – if country Rose had stepped out of that hotel room just two seconds sooner, she would have totally bumped right into city Rose, which would have been hilarious, because think about it! TWO of them! Oh, how we laughed!
Yeah, it’s all pretty thin, resting entirely on the ability of the two lead actresses to pump enough life and personality into it to carry it off. So I guess it’s a good thing that they didn’t get Shelley Long and Sally Kellerman. But at the end of the day, this is a rather congenial and inoffensive comedy of the type that they used to make all the time in the heyday of cable tv, until the mid-nineties or so, when somebody somewhere decided at the dawn of the internet age that silly little comedies needed to become grosser and raunchier, and suddenly there was no more room, or money, for movies like Moving Violations or Feds – remember Feds?
The increasingly subtle Clint Eastwood continues to astound me with his film craftsmanship. You could say that his entire career, as actor and director, has been a progressively thoughtful exploration of violence and the effects of violence, the unseen costs of violence, and the lingering consequences of violence. In American Sniper, he’s made a film so well that pretty much everybody in the country completely missed the point of it. It’s an astoundingly disturbing portrait of how an environment of continuous war dehumanizes not only the people we send to fight it, but the people who cheer them on from the distant homeland, far removed from the day-to-day realities of that war. The problem is that the reaction to the film has proven that the film’s point is on target, if you’ll excuse the expression. In a way, the popularity of the film in certain hawkish circles is as eloquent a statement on how disconnected the people are from the realities of the violence committed in their name; similarly, the wave of disgust for the film in more left-leaning circles demonstrates a distinct inability to process any commentary less subtle than a sledgehammer – small wonder when what passes for ‘politically incorrect’ these days is the decidedly bland non-personality Bill Maher. I have no doubt that in years to come, when it can be viewed outside of the entrenched partisan ideologies that have misdefined it, American Sniper will be seen as one of the most insightful anti-war films ever made, a chilling exploration of the dehumanization society suffers through publicly-approved slaughter.
First comic book movie of the year that I’ve seen: Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was a pleasant surprise for February, where studios send crappy movies off to die unnoticed deaths. It’s a fantastic concept that’s so obvious that it seems odd nobody ever did it before, and a surprising commentary on money, class, aristocracy, elitism, and that peculiar habit people have of thinking that other people are expendable towards their noble goals. It’s not as smart as Kick-Ass, by any means, but it is a fun ride and a fantastic spy film.
I also feel vindicated in thinking, back in the day, that a “James Bond, Jr.” movie would totally have worked. It helps that the cast was a parade of awesome British actors who would never be chosen to be James Bond getting to be James Bond:
> Colin Firth, who gets to unleash in one of the most spectacular orgies of violence I’ve ever seen on screen… But Bond? Naaah. Call him when you’re ready to do another Harry Palmer film, though, definitely. Or when you’re ready to do a new “Avengers” (or possibly a new “New Avengers“).
> Jack Davenport: Okay, granted, everybody likes this guy, and he very rarely seems to get to be Super-Awesome Action Guy, so it was fun seeing him in full-on James Bond/Jason Bourne mode. I doubt that (Darkman nonwithstanding) anyone suspected that Liam Neeson would have a run as Super-Awesome Action Guy, either, though, so it’s not too late for Jack. Maybe as our new Simon Templar? He’s got the charm.
> Mark Strong: Are you trying not to be the bad guy all the time, Mark? Remember, the last time you tried to be a spy on the side of the angels you got yourself shot. Bond is probably forever out of your grasp, but a Bond villain, on the other hand…. Now we’re talking.
> Taron Egerton: He’s very young, obviously, but I don’t see it happening. Loads of personality, though – He’s your working-man’s hero, more John McClain than James Bond. What would the British Die Hard series be? Snuff It? Bollocks!? Brown Bread? Not ‘ardly, Mate?
Of course Michael Caine was already Harry Palmer, so no regrets there. And he used to bring Batman his tea, which has to count for something. Also, Sophie Cookson was great, but we already have an Emma Watson, thank you very much.
I also marvel at Samuel L. Jackson’s ability to own roles that he’s been miscast in, like the philanthropist tech billionaire planning on yadda yadda yadda it doesn’t really matter anyway except a lotta people gonna die… It really should have been somebody half his age, but that’s the magic of the man, isn’t it? No matter who he plays, he’s Samuel L. Jackson, and that’s always worth seeing. Surprisingly, not a single ‘motherfucker’ that I can recall. You’re slipping, Sam. Still, his handi-capable assistant/assassin Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) was pretty much born to play this part.
Also: MARK HAMILL!
With Kick-Ass, and now Kingsman, I wonder why studios are so skittish about that R rating on comic book movies. Granted, I’d never want to see an R rated Batman movie, or Spider-Man, or anything like that, but some comic books fit the R rating perfectly, and Kingsman is one of them. Deadpool is another, and it’ll probably get the PG-13 rating so as not to taint that most precious of cash cows, the X-Men franchise. But it could, and should, frankly, be R rated. Of course, then there’s the OTHER problem, which is when studios DO try to make an R rated comic book movie, what they actually do is make a PG-13 movie and cram as much blood and gore into as possible, as if upping the graphic violence count is a fair substitute for writing a decent screenplay. Punisher: War Zone springs to mind, although what the heck – I still stand by that movie, warts and all.
Here’s your run-down:
So many dead bodies you can’t count ’em all.
Multiple colorful explosive decapitations.
Implied off-screen ass-fu.
Four stars. Christopher Chance says check it out.