Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Reviews: Do Two New Comedies Hit or Miss?


Wow -- Jesse Eisenberg must be tired from all the traveling he's done this year. He's literally gone from point A (Adventureland) to point Z (Zombieland). And what do you know, both stops involve amusement parks and the awkward Eisenberg falling for a girl seemingly out of his league. But that's where the similarities end. As Adventureland was set 20 years ago -- and Zombieland is set in the not-too-distant post-apocalyptic future where America is ravaged by a zombie plague.

Here, Eisenberg plays Columbus (all the characters use hometowns as their names because real names don't seem to matter in this new world) -- a loner in his past life -- and a loner now on a mission to find a part of the country where normal life still exists. He's successfully avoided becoming a victim of the plague by adhering to a strict (and hilarious) list of survival rules -- not sure if he is the last human on earth. But then he runs into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an AK-toting, zombie-slaying bad ass whose single determination is to satisfy his craving for a Twinkie. The two could not be any different -- but they are sure fun together as they learn to rely on each other or succumb to the zombies. Eiesenberg and Harrelson are both outstanding -- and have great buddy chemistry.

Things stall a bit when they meet up with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigal Breslin), who have also found unique ways to survive the zombie mayhem. Stone (Superbad) and Breslin (My Sister's Keeper, Little Miss Sunshine) aren't as strong or believable as their male counterparts -- but luckily Bill Murray shows up in a hilarious cameo to keep things moving along.

Director Ruben Fleischer (The Girls Guitar Club) has created quite a fun road trip with a great overall message -- if you don't like hanging out with other people, you might as well be a zombie. Be forewarned, it may be billed as a comedy -- but there is enough blood and gore to remind you that this is, after all, still a zombie movie. [Rated R; opens today]

Grade: B+

Whip It

In her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore takes on the world of women's roller derby. But Whip It is also a story of making a life of your own -- which may not match the one your parents want you to live. The story centers on a Texan high school student, Bliss (Ellen Page), who is unhappy in the world in which her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) has placed her in -- a life of beauty pageants. When Bliss discovers the world of roller derby -- she finally finds true happiness in the sport and the friendships with her teammates -- but will she be able to keep it a secret from her overbearing mother? And what will happen if mom ever finds out? Sound familiar? Yep -- this mother/daughter conflict has been played out before -- but what saves this film is the great cast and the roller derby action.

Page plays another version of her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno. She's still stuck in high school and she's still harboring a big secret. She's a charmer -- but at times I felt like I was watching Juno 2 -- if Page has any range as an actress, you won't witness it here. On the flip side, it was great to see the terrific Oscar winner Harden (Pollock) again. And the supporting cast is wonderful -- including Kristin Wiig (Adventureland), Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Juliette Lewis, Eve, and Luke and Owen's older brother, Andrew Wilson (who plays the coach). And yes, Barrymore also carved out a small role for herself as one of the derby chicks.

Written by Shauna Cross, the film is based on Cross' novel Derby Girl. And I really appreciated that we actually learn a bit about the rules, camaraderie and excitement of roller derby. I only wish that the conflicted child/parent storyline was a bit more fresh. Still, Barrymore succeeds in entertaining us in her first directorial feature. [Rated PG-13; opens today]

Grade: B

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