BIRTH (2004) – After-birth queasiness isn’t just for women anymore


Birth is the story of Anna (Nicole Kidman), a widow engaged to be re-married, who is accosted by a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband Sean. Initially affronted by this kid’s claim, Anna eventually comes to believe him all too much.

Some reviews just write themselves, don’t you think?

Nevertheless, I’ll be happy to point out the obvious: No matter how you slice it, this premise involves some most unseemly matters. If Anna falls for this kid, it’s going to lead to the kind of subject matter that you’d never want to see in a mainstream movie, even if the MPAA let you.


I’m relieved to report that the movie doesn’t quite go that far. At the same time, it veers closely enough to the edge — what with a boy-woman bathtub scene, and later a frank discussion about how the kid would handle Anna’s “needs” — that by movie’s end, you feel like a slimed Ghostbuster.

And what of this kid, anyway? The movie explains his presence so lackadaisically, it’s as though the movie was trying to reach a rare demographic of 10-year-old boys who suddenly want to be married to Nicole Kidman.

And don’t even get me started on Anne Heche, whose part in the story is supposed to be mysterious at first. Even so, from the very start, you can tell that her character has an interest in young Sean that has gone seriously awry.

The supporting cast, including 80-and-still-fabulous Lauren Bacall (What would Bogie think of this?), all have the same shell-shocked looks on their faces, as though they signed on for the movie before reading the script.

George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) – There goes the neighborhood


 Who says you can’t learn anything on summer vacation? Here’s what I learned about zombies from George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.

• Zombies become “walking dead” when their flesh is eaten by other zombies. They’re not truly dead until a bullet goes through them. (Of course, this is old news now, with the advent of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” but it wasn’t in 2005, when this movie was released.)

• Zombies are endlessly fascinated by fireworks, referred to in this movie as “sky flowers.” A fireworks display could save a zombie-ravaged town singlehandedly.

• As long as they don’t bite you, zombies can be trained as sideshow freaks. In Land, tourists even take souvenir photos of themselves with chained-up zombies.

Unfortunately, the existence of zombies has created a caste system. On the one hand are the wealthy residents of Fiddler’s Green, an indoor mall where the wealthy can live. (Fiddler’s Green is led by Dennis Hopper, so you know it can’t be nice.) Outside Fiddler’s Green are the lower-class citizens who do what they can to survive, including hunting down zombies.

The main plotline is that a go-fer of Hopper’s (John Leguizamo) expresses his resentment at being denied residence in Fiddler’s Green. So he is fired and plans revenge on Hopper. Meanwhile, the zombies have issues of their own. They’re not content to stay in their place, and before long, they’re heading for Fiddler’s Green to have a very dramatic labor dispute with Hopper.

It’s at just this level of semi-seriousness that Land of the Dead surprisingly succeeds. Within this limited milieu, Romero is peerless. There are some great overhead shots of the zombies descending upon the city like flies upon a corpse. And as gory as the movie is, it’s so over-the-top, you start to enjoy the varied and imaginative ways in which this walking-dead-vs.-live-snobs class war is worked out.

The entire cast, especially Simon Baker as a sort of human/zombie mitigater, have miraculously found the right tone for this silliness. However, special commendation must go to Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, the macho zombie leader. In Clark, the spirit of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein thrives.


Land of the Dead is rated R for much adult language, graphic gore, and intense action.








TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE (2005) – A corpse is a corpse, of course, of course


It’s a (typical) paradox in Gothic director Tim Burton’s career that it took a meticulously timed stop-motion animation film to loosen him up. But after many years in which it seemed that Burton got lost in the woods of his own lugubrious style, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride returned him to the black-comedy riches of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In fact, the many fans of Nightmare will find Corpse Bride a not-so-distant cousin. The story concerns Victor and Victoria (voiced by Johnny Depp and Emily Watson), their names an ominous reflection of the Victorian era in which they were raised. They’re to be married almost before they even meet each other; the couple’s parents arranged the marriage on their own as a convenient (for them) union of money and status.

A befuddled Victor is out in the woods, reciting his wedding vows, when a decedent from Down Below (Helena Bonham Carter) happily takes Victor at his word. Now Victor, who previously couldn’t get one woman to pay him attention, now has two vying for his affections; it just happens that one of them is inconveniently dead.

Once the movie visits the Corpse Bride’s, er, alternate society, it really goes to town and never looks back. It’s obvious where Burton’s allegiances lay; it’s actually the afterlife that’s richly colored and layered, while the “live” world labors in an almost completely black-and-white atmosphere, as though they’re practicing to be dead. And haven’t we all met a few people like that?

The movie is a finely tuned clockwork of non-stop invention, never letting the audience know where it’s going and asking us to just enjoy the ride. Danny Elfman, Burton’s long-time musical collaborator, provides a calliope of sounds and styles that only add flavor to this very exotic mix, as does the rich cast of voices (including veterans such as Albert Finney and Christopher Lee).

Dealing humorously with death requires a very fine skill; go too far over the top, as did Burton’s recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the discomfort starts to gnaw at you. Here, as in most of his best work, Burton finds just the right macabre tone, like respectful trick-or-treaters at Halloween. It’s a very liberating tonic that casts most of this year’s animated features into the shadows.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is rated PG for comic-book-style peril and macabre humor.

FREAKS: Aren’t we all freaks in some way?


(To honor the birthday of Charles Albert “Tod” Browning (1880-1962), here is my review of his classic cult film, Freaks [1932].)


In light of Freaks being a horror movie (Tod Browning also directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula), it’s most ironic that it treats sideshow attractions as real people. In fact, in this film, the people who treat these carnival workers as “freaks” aren’t very normal themselves–which is the point of much of this movie.

The movie primarily concerns Hans, a midget who succumbs to the flattery and charm of Cleopatra, the carnival’s local beauty, despite Hans’s being loved and accepted by the carnival’s informal family of “freaks,” most of all by Frieda, a fellow short person. The movie takes great pains to show this informal family of carnival workers most matter-of-factly. The movie’s “Everyperson” couple of Phroso and Venus interacts with the group’s Siamese twins, a man lacking arms and legs, etc., and the movie does nothing to draw great attention to these workers after their initial screen appearances.

But in spite of lacking physical normalities, these people are anything but helpless. When Cleopatra and her strong-man lover Hercules take great pains to humiliate Hans and (by extension) the rest of his extended family, they exact a most complete and utter revenge.

It is at this point that the movie, having admirably shown the “freaks” as human beings, does indeed exploit their deformities for maximum impact. And yet, the “freaks” seem quite happy to cooperate in such exploitation, probably because it shows them as both empowered and empowering. In short, the film’s message is: Just because we’re different, don’t assume we’re weaklings. In their own way, the “freaks” can kick behind with the best of cinema’s he-men.

It’s probably this very message that has caused the movie’s ongoing controversy. MGM released the movie in 1932 and then did its best to disavow the whole thing. And it was banned in Britain for over 30 years.

But in a movie era where no oddity is considered too sacred for either a quick laugh or massive condescension (see the Farrelly Bros. filmography), this movie is worth a second look. We’re all freaks in one sense or other, and perhaps if we more often looked inward, a little less hostility might directed outward.