New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead is sure to be compared to “Cloverfield,” thanks to a vague similarity in the first-person video diary style that became an instant cliche minutes after “The Blair Witch Project” made it into a high-concept horror success. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s more than simply budgets and gloss.

diaryofdead.jpgWhere “Cloverfield” begs your indulgence while a clueless schlub refuses to put down the camera in a situation where it could impede his survival, “Diary” makes the cameraman’s refusal to drop the camera the defining characteristic of the character, an aspiring filmmaker who is more concerned with making history than surviving it, and the often heated arguments.

It also shares something in common with “Redacted” – the mix of first-person video footage, news footage and streaming video uploaded to the Internet, not to mention rather awkward performances that substitute volume for commitment. Performance has never been Romero’s strong suit and he’s not one to coax convincing characters from limited actors, but at least they are more interesting than the bland nothings on display in “Cloverfield.” More importantly, however, Romero has something more on his mind. Not always subtle, but interesting and insistent and less verbal than visual and visceral. Romero follows a familiar horror narrative structure and knows how to deliver the zombie conventions – the stumbling chases, the gore, the scrambling survivors who inevitably trip in the panic of their escape – but between the conventions is a root suspicion of the veracity of the media in the way if reports on our world.

It also questions the engagement of the cameraman in such a situation. Is his duty to document, or to put down the camera and help?

I reviewed the film in the Seattle P-I here.

The motivations of the citizens aren’t necessarily altruistic, but that fits nicely with Romero’s balance of pragmatism and ambiguity.

Even as society breaks down into looting and feudalistic enclaves, information is still a commodity in the digital age.

Update – my Seattle Times colleague Mark Rahner interviewed George Romero about Diary late last year. The interview was published in the Seattle Times with an extended on-line version. Here are a few gems from the piece.

Q: “Diary of the Dead” seems like guerrilla filmmaking — done very fast and cheap.

A: That’s exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, after “Land of the Dead” (2005), I felt, “Boy, this is getting so big, where do we go next?” “Beyond the Planet of the Apes?” or “Beyond Thunderdome?” I didn’t know exactly what to do, and I really wanted to go back to the roots. I thought it had lost its connection, it had lost any sense of relationship to the origin of the series, which was “Night of the Living Dead,” which was a bunch of us amateur filmmakers making a guerrilla movie in Pittsburg, improbably.

Q: Your previous “Dead” flicks all made pretty overt statements — consumerism in “Dawn” and so forth. My question: Is there anything zombies couldn’t be a metaphor for?

A: Nope. (Pause. Laughter.) And it’s not the zombies, you see. The zombies could be any disaster. If you look at the stories, the stories are about the human characters and how they fail to deal with the disaster, or deal with it improbably, or deal with it stupidly. And that to me is what the movies, all of them, are about. You could just throw zombies into anything —

Q: The subprime mortgage crisis: Throw some zombies in there —

A: Throw that in there, that’s right! They’re repossessing everybody’s house! (Laughs.)

Keep reading here.

The proximity of Valentine’s Day and President’s Day inspired the studio to launch a number of releases on Thursday for a four-day movie weekend this week. I reviewed two of the Thursday releases in the P-I.

Definitely, Maybe is a cute gimmick with a good cast, including Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Abigail Breslin.

definitelymaybe1.jpg

“When Harry Met Sally” becomes “When Daddy Met Mommy,” a bedtime story by way of a post-modern romantic tale with a dash of mystery, not so much whodunit as who-is-it? When doting daddy, on the eve of his divorce from mommy, tells his insistent daughter, “It’s complicated,” he’s not kidding.

It feels overworked at times, a gimmick saved largely by chemistry. But it’s also sweet and sour in the best ways, where romantic wounds heal, old loves can still remain friends, and true love is still an ideal worth pursuing.

Read the rest of the review here.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a small scale adaptation of the fantasy novel series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.spiderwickchronicles3.jpg

There’s a curious echo of H.P. Lovecraft in the way knowledge of the fantastical world draws the kids deeper inside, and there’s an unusually unforgiving undercurrent to the fairy folk politics. But the implications seem to make director Mark Waters nervous as he steers the film into a rather generic adventure.

Read the rest of the review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

One thought on “New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’”

  1. Hey Sean =)
    I’m definitely gonna check out Diary of the Dead. Read a couple reviews, but eh, if you’re a fan of Romero you know that the movies he makes aren’t exactly 4 star flicks. Nonetheless, a zombie movie is a zombie movie, and he’s the king of his genre. Did you see that he’s holding a contest to allow people to submit their own horror featurette to him and it’ll be premiered (?) and put on the DVD, etc. Pretty cool to see him reaching out to the fans like that. Have you done anything recently along the lines of short films?
    I know that they’re now allowing online content like webisodes and online films to be eligible for nomination in this years Primetime Emmy’s? I think last year they were allowed for the DT Emmy’s, so it’s pretty cool they’re actually considering online amateur/indie footage for nomination this year. If you’re interested or want to read more, check out http://www.emmys.com . I’m workin with the Academy to help spread the message about the new nominations, so if you get to check it out let me know! And spread the love =)

    <3 <3 chola

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