Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Making of Zombie Wars

Aspiring writer Joshua Levin churns through multiple failed screenplay ideas while balancing a relationship with a child psychologist and a job teaching ESL classes. Just when he hits upon a concept with momentum – a zombie-survival action script – his life begins to unravel. His landlord’s behavior escalates from “quirky” to “deranged,” his embarrassing father reveals some depressing health news, and he begins a doomed affair with one of his students, a Bosnian wife and mother. Eventually, Josh’s life, formerly stuck in a comfortable stasis, becomes as manic as one of his treatments.

Aleksandar Hemon has a reputation as a “heavy” writer: alienation, loss of identity, and the ravages of war loom large over much of his oeuvre. His first English-language story, on the other hand, presented the (regrettably fictional) life of a legendarily flatulent politically influential nymphomaniac. This strain of dark humor has injected itself prominently into Hemon’s most recent novel, a book that is often savagely violent yet irrepressibly entertaining. The (intentionally?) terrible screenplay ideas that come up from time to time are reason enough to keep reading, but we’re also treated to the spectacle of Josh pondering the implications of toys found in his girlfriend’s closet, of the irony of his domineering sister’s complete lack of control over her own child, and of his landlord’s obliviously creepy offers of friendship while casually brandishing a sword.  

Behind this captivating craziness, however, is another very sobering look at the destructiveness wrought by war. Stagger the landlord is eventually revealed to be deeply affected by his military service during the Gulf War, and Josh encounters several Bosnian War veterans whose lives were similarly upended. Meanwhile, as The Making of Zombie Wars is set circa 2004, the Iraq War is slowly unfolding in the background. If the heroic and resolute soldiers fighting the hordes of undead in Josh’s screenplay depict an idealized war, then the PTSD-afflicted veterans offer a realistic counterpoint. It is also telling that the zombie wars’ architect – Josh himself – is cast as a poor decision-maker.

And this brings us to the book’s biggest liability: Josh is not a likable or terribly interesting protagonist. His aforementioned lack of judgment would be redeemable if he behaved foolishly with gusto, but instead, he makes bad choices seemingly because he lacks the wherewithal not to. While Jozef Pronek, the protagonist of the earlier Hemon novel Nowhere Man suffered from similar rudderlessness and artistic delusions, his status as a quasi-refugee contextualized his disappointment and inspired sympathy. Josh, the product of a comfortably middle-class American family, comes across as a loser in comparison.

Despite this, The Making of Zombie Wars is an apt showcase for Hemon’s many talents: a prose craftsman, a dark satirist, and a chronicler of human misery. There are relatively few actual zombie encounters in this book, but the humans that we are subjected to are, in many ways, amusingly and alarmingly worse.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

In the early 1950s, Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must defuse a variety of situations while contemplating an offer to become a Lockheed executive. A twice-divorced swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, a singing cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) has been shoehorned into a period drama role to which he is ill-suited, and twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) hound him with threats and inquiries. Things go from bad to worse when leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from the set of a high-budget epic set in ancient Rome and a group called The Future demands $100,000 for his safe return.

Though their oeuvre is definitely diverse, the Coen Brothers have long had an affinity for screwball comedies and old-timey Hollywood. Both are on full display here to the extent that Hail, Caesar! is little more than one long homage. It also happens to be a fitfully funny skewering of many of the same conventions that it seems to praise, something which may have sailed over the heads of dismissive viewers who lacked exposure to the big studio productions of the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite featuring a real person (Mannix was an infamous longtime MGM executive) as its protagonist, Hail, Caesar! is by no means a biopic. It presents an entirely fictional narrative that is laced with shout-outs to real happenings and popular Hollywood myths. The big-name cast, which includes Johansson, Ehrenreich, Swinton, Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, and Channing Tatum, convincingly channels Esther Williams/Loretta Young, Roy Rogers/Gene Autry, Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons, Charlton Heston/Kirk Douglas/Robert Taylor, George Cukor, and Gene Kelly, respectively. Not only are the mannerisms spot-on, but the film is well-costumed and rich with period detail.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film if everything was played straight, and it certainly isn’t here. Witness Ehrenreich’s groan-inducing inability to lose his Southern accent, Tatum’s exaggeratedly homoerotic dance sequence from a Navy musical, or Swinton’s (both of her characters) progressively ostentatious hats, and you’ll get a good idea of Hail Caesar’s sensibility. Even when the film attempts to tackle more serious issues – religious iconography in cinema, Communist influence in Hollywood, the morality of the studio system – it does so mercilessly and irreverently.

And yet, for as fun as this film is, there is no getting around the pointlessness of its convoluted plot. This is less a coherent story and more a collection of shenanigans that Mannix (who is a deadpan tough guy everywhere but at home or in a confessional booth) has to mop up, and little is resolved by the end. A previous Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, concluded by having characters wonder aloud what just happened and what they could possibly learn from the experience. Viewing Hail, Caesar! will leave you thinking much the same.

Even viewed charitably, Hail, Caesar! does not rank toward the top of the brothers’ output. However, if you have any appreciation for or recollection of classic Hollywood, this reference-laden send-up is likely to leave you entertained.



Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a nursing home patient suffering from dementia. Following the death of his wife, fellow patient and Holocaust survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) tasks Zev with avenging their families by tracking down and killing the SS officer responsible before he dies anonymously from old age. The sadistic officer, Otto Walisch, has been living under the name Rudy Kurlander, and Max has located four men with that name. With Max’s detailed instructions in hand, Zev procures a gun and begins a hunt that will take him across the U.S. and Canada in pursuit of long-awaited vengeance.

Scripted by newcomer Benjamin August and directed by veteran Atom Egoyan, Remember plays like a mashup of Memento and The Debt. If that sounds gimmicky, it should come as no surprise that the film definitely is, but it is also affecting and poignant.

Much of the film’s power is derived from Plummer’s masterful performance in a demanding role. In lesser hands, Zev would come across as a doddering caricature, but Plummer plays him as a man fiercely intent on preserving both his dignity and his resolve even if he isn’t always successful. The rest of the cast gives him plenty of help. Landau has the whole strong of mind/frail of body thing down pat, imbuing Max with cunning while he coughs and wheezes. Character actors Bruno Ganz and Jurgen Prochnow, under heavy makeup, are memorable in their brief roles as potential Rudy Kurlanders. The film also features a Dean Norris appearance as a bombastic lawman, something of a cliché at this point, but it works to fuel a pivotal scene.

Behind the camera, Egoyan furthers the film’s ambitions by never lowering the stakes. He expertly builds in tension and keeps the audience invested in Zev’s journey. The film’s twist ending is likely to infuriate some viewers, but even viewed in the worst light, it never reaches M. Night Shyamalan territory.

Besides, Remember’s biggest liability is evident well before that point. Despite the film’s attempts to gloss over it, the plot demands the viewer accept quite a bit of illogic. How else would one describe a visibly disoriented 90-year-old who makes little effort to adequately conceal a handgun progressing as far as Zev does? Or does one take this as the Canadian Egoyan’s deliberate jab at American gun culture?

Inanity aside, Remember is a potent little film that both presents and questions the idea that some things can never be forgiven. It also works to reminder viewers that, regardless of where they stand on that question, being north of 80 doesn’t mean that you can’t turn in a great performance.



Located at 223 South Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro, Tunazilla serves sushi and Japanese cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days a week. There is a full bar, and a recent special featured half off sushi rolls between 5 and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

A sushi spot seems like a no-brainer for Downtown Greensboro - College Hill has one as does Old Irving Park – and Tunazilla could not have picked a better location. While it has several other virtues, two visits (one dine-in and one takeout) have convinced me that it is very much still a work in progress.

Like most Elm Street eateries, Tunazilla is deceptively deep. But thanks to its bright, handsome interior and high ceilings, it doesn’t feel as narrow as some of its streetmates. The menu is appealing as well, offering both classic rolls and some more innovative (though not to the level of It’s Your Roll, RIP) variations.

Beyond that, however, things get quite iffy. Bartenders and servers are quite friendly and seem capable, but service is slow even when Tunazilla isn’t remotely crowded. The rolls are reasonably priced (many can be had for under $10 each) and are a downright bargain on half-off nights, but the hibachi entrees that start in the mid-teens are a reach to say the least.

Flavors were another mixed bag. The sushi seemed fresh, and though none of the rolls disappointed, the Rock and Roll (California roll topped with crab, eel, and sauce) may be a favorite. On the other hand, the vegetable dim sum are overpriced, bland, and come with an overpowering sauce.

By virtue of being a sushi spot in the heart of Greensboro, Tunazilla will probably continue to do brisk business. But while the owner/chef has some commendable sushi skills, the rest of the restaurant seems to be playing catch-up.


Tunazilla Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato