28 WEEKS LATER
In any given year, I see a lot of horror movies at the cineplex. But I remember one moment from watching the 2002 zombie flick 28 Days Later like it was yesterday: when that drop of infected blood landed on Brendan Gleeson, and the audience didn't just gasp, we practically moaned. It was the most spontaneously empathetic group response I'd ever heard during a fright film - a hundred people simultaneously reacting with "No, not him" anguish - and it underlined what made Danny Boyle's nerve-racking thriller so strong.
By creating such a specific, recognizable nightmare world in which friends and relatives could, in an instant, become mortal enemies, Boyle ensured that his horror film was both fiercely believable and legitimately heart-wrenching; we didn't just want the leading characters to survive, we wanted the infected to be healed (or, at the very least, immediately put out of their misery). It may concern the undead, but 28 Days Later still stands as one of its genre's most humane entertainments.
At its best, which is often, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's follow-up 28 Weeks Later produces a similarly unexpected empathy. The scare scenes are oftentimes extraordinarily effective; the opening sequence, featuring a stunning act of cowardice by one of our heroes, is a marvel of sustained intensity, and the later, startlingly well-edited zombie attacks have an almost feral power. Yet what keeps the film from merely being a collection of satisfying "Boo!" scenes is the desperate emotionalism on display: the aching fear and confusion of the youthful survivors (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton), who might have the zombie antidote in their DNA; the surprising selflessness of key military personnel.
In 28 Weeks Later, the characters' fates unequivocally matter, and Fresnadillo's tone - serious yet enjoyably subversive - never wavers; even the most unapologetically audience-pleasing scene, wherein an army of zombies is torn apart by helicopter blades, is rooted in the understanding that these monstrous flesh-eaters were once human, too. If, like me, you're a pretty unrepentant fan of zombie movies, 28 Weeks Later is unmissable. If you're not, this wonderfully scary and inspiringly smart film could easily turn you into one.
You don't have to be an Arrested Development fan to get a huge kick out of Jason Bateman's performance in The Ex, but you'll no doubt enjoy him even more if you are one. Directed by Jesse Peretz, the movie casts Zach Braff and Amanda Peet as new parents who trade the hustle and bustle of New York City for the seemingly saner confines of central Ohio; a former chef, Braff now finds himself an advertising executive at his father-in-law's agency. Upsetting the happy-family dynamic, though, is Bateman, who plays Braff's superior - a ruthless yet deceptively passive go-getter who (a) is hell-bent on removing Braff from the picture; (b) once had a fling with Peet; and (c) happens to be a paraplegic.
Playing the Noble Victim who uses his handicap to continually - and cruelly - one-up the increasingly incensed Braff, Bateman is devastatingly funny in The Ex. His withering sarcasm and barely concealed insults provide a welcome jolt of nastiness, and for those who adored his work on Arrested Development, the actor's gifts for delivering his most biting remarks from under his breath help create a distinctive, yet wonderfully familiar, character type. My God, you think, this is what Michael Bluth would be like if he turned into his father, George.
It's a good thing that Bateman is as good as he is, because otherwise The Ex would be incredibly infuriating. Plotlines are established, and quickly dropped, with no rhyme or reason - it feels like half the movie was left on the cutting-room floor - yet this lurching quality isn't as detrimental to the story as it is to the cast; Peet's character appears to lose IQ points as the film continues, and wonderfully talented actors - Mia Farrow, Paul Rudd, Donal Logue, Amy Adams, Romany Malco, Josh Charles - keep showing up only to be completely discarded a scene or two later. (After a promising introduction, Amy Poehler completely - and senselessly - vanishes from the film.) The Ex is an unholy mess, but at least Bateman is on fire, and the great Charles Grodin is subtly hysterical as Braff's not-so-secretly alcoholic father-in-law. (He has a habit of greeting people just a little too loudly.) Seeing Bateman on-screen is always a pleasure. Seeing Grodin, in his first film in more than a decade, is a thrill.
Curtis Hanson, whose works include L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile, is generally such a smart director that you want to give his gambling drama Lucky You the benefit of the doubt for as long as you possibly can. In my case, that lasted about two minutes. Eric Bana plays professional Las Vegas gambler Huck Cheever, who, in the film's pre-credits sequence, is seen sweet-talking a pawn-shop dealer out of a few hundred dollars, and by the scene's end my eyelids were already feeling droopy; Bana's lulling monotone, natural passivity, and continued refusal to alter his facial expressions are the screen equivalent of a Sominex. You can argue that these qualities make him ideally cast as a Texas Hold 'Em wizard - where success, after all, requires a poker-face - but they also make Bana an ungodly boring leading man, and unfortunately, the script (co-written by Hanson and Eric Roth) dulls our interest in him even further.
Would you be surprised to learn that Lucky You finds the hedonistic Cheever falling for an impossibly sweet wannabe chanteuse (Drew Barrymore) who's determined to make him a better man? That Cheever is emotionally stunted due to the inaccessibility of his poker-legend father (Robert Duvall)? That the plotting will clumsily ensure that Cheever and Pop square off against each other at the World Series of Poker? As narrative conceits go, all of this is less Screenwriting 101 than Intro to Screenwriting 101, but the hoariness of the storyline may have been forgiven if the poker scenes displayed any wit, or if Bana and Barrymore shared anything resembling chemistry. The movie, though, just lies there; there's less passion, and far less unpredictability, in Lucky You than you'll find in any poker match broadcast on ESPN.
There's exactly one entertaining scene in the movie (less a scene, actually, than a few looks), which finds Duvall at the table opposite the ever-radiant Jean Smart; each trying to out-bluff the other, the actors, with insinuating delight, briefly engage in some exhilarating nonverbal repartee. The outcome of the sequence is never in doubt - if Smart wins, after all, Duvall and Bana won't enjoy a climactic father-and-son face-off - but the performers seem to be having such fun staring each other down that, for just an instant, Lucky You reveals both the tension and the exquisite joy of the game. Bana and Hanson should have taken notes; with only a few seconds to do it in, Duvall and Smart remind you that inscrutable doesn't necessarily have to mean blank.