Friday, January 30, 2009

Sundance 2009: The Dramatic Competition: Based on the Blog by Jeremy

I will be recapping Sundance over the next week by taking a detailed, epic look at each of the festival's program selections. First up is the festival's best-known—if not always best—category.

If the 2009 Sundance Film Festival was an above-average affair, one must acknowledge its flagship category, the US Dramatic Competition, for—if nothing else—approaching something in the ballpark of uniform quality. While it didn't exactly house a game-changing, ah-ha piece of cinema, it only had a couple films that made me want to blow my brains out rather than view them to their conclusion.

I saw all but one of the selection's films ("Peter and Vandy"), and none of them were incompetent. Regular Sundancers will recognize this as a rare feat on the part of the festival programmers. There were still a few boring and/or ridiculous titles, but the turds were generally shiny.

While the Documentary Competition routinely outshines it on the total-films-worth-watching scale, the Dramatic Competition usually plays home to the festival's best discoveries. "Blood Simple," "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Primer," "American Splendor," and many more turned up here. But so have a lot of films that no one cares to remember, or even acknowledge.

Festival-goers often speculate about the programming process, and from the rumors and hearsay emerges a narrative of a bunch of feuding programmers, each with a pet film they're determined to force through. One programmer even introduced the World Documentary entry "Big River Man" by enthusiastically proclaiming that there was no fighting over its inclusion. Huzzah!

If the competition was stronger than usual in 2009, the jury, always unpredictable (except when they agree with me), was considerably more stoned when it selected the competition's winners.

The two top prizes, the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, both went to the same film: "Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire." Now, I suppose a film with that subtitle could be worthy of an award, providing that money men forced it upon its makers so it wouldn't be confused with an upcoming release starring Dakota Fanning. But the title is merely where the problems start.

At times, the film contains very moving performances—hence the Audience Award. (Sundance audiences love that kind of stuff.) But I'm surprised the jury fell so hard for the over-loaded and generic weepy inspirational melodrama.

"Push" could have been a film about a morbidly obese teenage girl who doesn't know how to read, and ends up in an alternative school where she learns to love herself. Or it could have been about a girl who is pregnant with her second child…her second child conceived of her father's incestuous rape, that is. And either of these plots could use a crazy, abusive, violent mother as a sideshow. But "Push"—sorry, "Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire"— saddles its main character, Precious (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe), with all these problems and more.

The resulting film rushes its character arcs while also falling into monotonous traps. Mo'Nique received a Special Jury Prize for her turn as Precious's mother, but I think this award was based mainly on her closing monologue. For the rest of the movie, all her scenes presumably consisted of this direction: "Act crazy and throw shit!" I don't doubt the filmmakers' or the jury's intentions, but this bloated movie doesn't represent the best the competition had to offer.

The jury made an even more perplexing decision when it presented the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award to "Paper Heart," a boring, repetitive, annoying mess that very obviously had no screenplay.

If they wanted to give a writing award to an improvised movie, they should have honored Lynn Shelton's "Humpday." A funnier, better-structured work, the movie stars Mark Duplass and Alycia Delmore as a couple whose insecurities come to the forefront when Duplass's old friend, played by Joshua Leonard, arrives for an unexpected visit. Stoned and drunk at a party, the two friends conceive of a porn film featuring two heterosexual male friends having sex—starring themselves.

Shooting in the same spirit of the films by Duplass and his brother Jay, Shelton creates an authentic examination of the second thoughts and regrets that plague suburban professionals. More importantly, however, the film is funny as hell. At least "Humpday" received of the three awards given to deserving films: a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence.

The other two prizes, including Best Director, went to Cary Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," an entertaining and heartfelt drama of gang culture and redemption in Mexico. The film follows a young man who can't escape gang life, and gets himself into deeper trouble when the frustration reaches its tipping point. He soon finds himself on the run, traveling with a young immigrant woman on her way to the U.S. border. Adriano Goldman's award for Cinematography was well-deserved, as he captures the hot, endless days, and a sweaty, tense train ride of would-be U.S. immigrants traveling from the Guatemalan border. Focus Features will release the film in the United States soon.

The best film of the competition went home with no awards. Cruz Angeles's "Don't Let Me Drown" is a touching teenage love story that weaves through the lives of two Latino families in Brooklyn during the months after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. Lalo's (E.J. Bonilla) father, a Mexican immigrant, was a janitor in the towers, and now cleans up the site, inhaling dust and asbestos all day. Stefanie's (Gleendilys Inoa) sister died in the attack, leaving her father angry and overly protective. The two find that their connection with one another may be the only thing to carry them through troubling times.

The film's characters are so well written and acted that we develop a deep affection for them. The humorous and emotional moments work so well because they grow naturally out of the interaction. In particular, the rapport between the high school students feels just right. These are good kids who are still trying to come to terms with their emotions, but also want to enjoy their youth. Nothing at the festival was funnier than Lalo's uncle's attempt to give the boy "the talk." And nothing was more poignant than the simple, elegant conclusion to which the film leads us.

Writer/director Cherien Dabis offered a a third, distinct, look at the immigrant experience with "Amreeka," the story of a Palestinian mother and son who emigrate to the United States to live with her sister's family in suburban Illinois. Full of well-written characters in roles big and small, "Amreeka" recognizes the loss of dignity inherent in starting a life in a new country. LIke "Don't Let Me Drown," it offers a balance of comedy to offset a largely sad story. Muna, portrayed delicately by Nisreen Faour, was a banker in Palestine, but now can only find a job at a White Castle. While at times overly cringe-inducing, the film is a testament to challenge of maintaining your self respect.

Max Mayer's "Adam" found a memorable love story the relationship between two characters who, no matter how hard they try, can never fully understand one another. Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne star as two New Yorkers who meet in their apartment building, but fail at the traditional courtship routine because he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. Beth really likes Adam, but his behavior is often awkward and perplexing. He can never quite recognize how she feels, and she can never get through to the man behind the scientific wizardry and clumsy social skills.

In a festival with more science-themed films than usual, "Adam" won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The prize is awarded by a separate jury that, I've always suspected, spends most of its time desperately looking through all the Sundance categories for science-themed films that might be eligible for the award. Several of this year's strongest film's were science-fiction or otherwise science related, making this a much more competetive prize than usual.

Speaking of science, people will no doubt recall another film when hearing about Sophie Barthes's "Cold Souls." The film stars a well-respected actor as himself to create a surreal, existential science-fiction experience. Yes, the "Being John Malkovich" comparisons are inevitable, but the film has its own set of rules and ideas apart from Kaufman and Jonze. Paul Giamatti plays himself as a tortured actor who decides to extract his soul and put it in storage because it is too much of a burden for him to carry. Of course, moving through life with no soul also proves difficult. While Giamatti's motivations and the film's internal logic don't always work, Barthes generates some fascinating philosophy and humor, most notably in the wonderfully droll scenes between Giamatti and David Strathairn as the facility's dodgy doctor and manager.

Robert Seigel, who wrote the screenplay for Daren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," one of the best films of 2008, made his directorial debut with "Big Fan". The great standup comedian Patton Oswalt stars as a parking garage attendant who lives with his mother and spends his free time obsessing over the New York Giants football team. While overly repetitive and tonally uneven, the film nevertheless offers a fascinating look at a man who equates much of his life's value with the performance of a team over which he has no control.

Ross Katz's "Taking Chance" stopped at Sundance on the way to its premiere on HBO next month. Based on the memoir by Lt. Col. Michael R. Strobl, it stars Kevin Bacon as Strobl, a Marine with a desk job who decides to escort a fallen young Marine's remains home for his funeral. The tear-jerking journey that follows emphasizes the affect of war on a community, and the tragedy of dying young.

John Krasinski showed some directorial flare and daring in "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," his adaptation of David Foster Wallace's short story collection, but failed in his attempt to create a cohesive story with which to frame the material.

Emily Abt's "Toe to Toe" unevenly and sometimes lopsidedly attempts to study the racial and class divide through the lives of two students on a high school ladies lacrosse team, one black and one white, each in a different economic and social strata. While each character is at times intriguing, the story of two sad girls lacks the interaction of a great character drama.

Despite one very interesting character, Adam Salky's sulky teenage drama "Dare" loses much of the impact of its lurid teenage love triangle by favoring bacchanalian excess over over coherency.

While Shana Feste's "The Greatest," starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as greiving parents, was part of Sundance's coming out party for the bright, young and charming Carey Mulligan, it suffers from a remarkably idiotic screenplay. But at least it had its moments, which I can't say for John Hindman's insulting "Arlen Faber."
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Brief Flirtations with Adapting DFW

Sundance 2009 Review: "Brief Conversations with Hideous Men"
Dramatic Competition

You can't say that John Krasinski isn't ballsy. For his debut as a writer and director, the actor best known as Jim on NBC's "The Office" could have played it safe and made a nice indie comedy—something akin to Sundance's last filmmaking debut from a sitcom star, Zach Braff's "Garden State." Instead, he tackled the daunting task of adapting a dark short story collection by the late David Foster Wallace that isn't inherently likable and (by design) has no story structure outside of thematic connections.

The result, "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," fails to create a compelling narrative, but succeeds in several of its vignettes, which work as marriages of Wallace's text and cinematic form. Think of the film as an audiobook with visual aid. Krasinski displays a passionate loyalty to the source material, transferring much of Wallace's writing directly into monologues and narrated set-pieces that swirl around the skeletal main story-line.

Taking his cue from European art films, Krasinski charges into the material with jump cuts and editing trickery, maneuvering his actors' conversations through time and space. Sometimes the style is overly self-conscious and he tries too hard to keep the visuals exciting. Other times, the techniques fit perfectly with the story.

Adding to the uneven quality, some actors do a better job nailing the mannerisms in the dialogue than others. Clarke Peters swiftly delivers commentary on the different types of men who don't know how to please women, particularly those who think they know all the tricks. Josh Charles admits guilt while projecting it onto others in a cruel, oft-repeated breakup speech. Frankie Faison and Malcolm Goodwin offer alternating perspectives as a son remembers his father's career as a high-class restroom attendant. Unfortunately, Krasinski's own acting chops don't quite meet the material's demands in a long monologue that aims to bring closure to the entire mosaic.

To provide perspective on the sausage buffet, Krasinski casts Julianne Nicholson as a grad student conducting interviews with these men for her study. She records the men in a dismal, concrete room, but also files her discussions with students (Dominic Cooper) and her professor (Timothy Hutton), as well as other overheard conversations around campus. Visually, Krasinski initially keeps her out of the interview scenes, then shows only the back of her head, until she gradually becomes a much more involved party. Krasinski plays her ex-boyfriend, seen intermittently in flashbacks, but doesn't do much other than look at her and smile until the film's closing moments.

Watching "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," you get the feeling that Krasinski was much more sure of himself while adapting Wallace's words than while creating his own. But the source left many blanks to be filled in if the goal is a narrative. "Brief Interviews" works best when the main story is forgotten, and Wallace's words dance in the foreground.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

My CW Sundance Blogs

The Sundance Film Festival takes place in some sort of temporal anomaly. (Perhaps Park City is the island from "LOST?") You feel that time raced by because, well, there's so much to see and do that it's impossible to accomplish everything before the awards are handed out and the theaters dismantled. At the same time, when you think back to your first day, 70 films earlier, you feel that it couldn't really only be 10 days ago, could it? I'm looking through the blog entries I wrote for the City Weekly, noting distant memories and stories that I still need to tell.

"Don't Let Me Drown was the best films of the Dramatic Competition. But as always, there were several duds, including "Arlen Faber" and "The Greatest."

There was the anti-climactic, unannounced premiere of Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience." Other premieres included Carlos Cuaron's "Rudo y Cursi" and opening night film "Mary and Max."

A lot of intriguing, philosophical sci-fi came out of the festival, including the wonderful "Moon, which I'll write about later, and "The Clone Returns Home" and "Cold Souls."

The Spectrum category brought the uneven but intriguing "The Missing Person."

Several of the documentaries were excellent, and I'll have more on them soon. Be sure not to miss the exciting documentary "The Cove," which feels like a heist film as much as a political documentary. It went on to win the Documentary Audience Award. I also commented on "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" and the rise of documentarians making films about family members.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Just so I can say it…

FORMER President George W. Bush.
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Sunday, January 18, 2009


Sundance 2009 Review: "Paper Heart"
US Dramatic Competition

Gene Siskel liked to pose this question in his reviews: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" "Paper Hearts" pretends to be a documentary about its actors, and even includes lunch scene. If its depiction is even remotely close to the real life scene, I'll order in.

Nicholas Jasenovec's film stars Charlyne Yi as herself, as she and Jasenovec, played not by himself, but by Jake M. Johnson, travel the country to make a documentary about her quest to discover love. Poor Charlyne doesn't believe in love, but Nick hopes to change her mind. They interview people in six different cities and towns about their relationships, but these vignettes have no relation to the film's main story, about Yi's attempted romance with Michael Cera.

You'd think that Yi, who co-wrote the movie, would want to make herself a more interesting character, seeing as she's depicting her own personality. While funny in small doses in film's like "Knocked Up," her cutesy goofiness can't sustain a feature. She spends half her screen time repeating the meaningless mantra that she still doesn't believe in love. I don't know why the supposed documentary would need her. She doesn't inject the interviews with any good questions or a compelling personality. A better film could have been made about any of the interviewees.

Jasenovec makes the film itself a major plot point, as Charlyne tries to build a relationship with Michael while a film crew follows them. Jasenovec succeeds in upholding the film's conceit, but fails to create any genuine emotional resonance with his characters. The gimmick is yet another layer of distraction in a film that never gets to know its characters.

The filmmakers layout the entire plot with some very clumsy foreshadowing, rendering the film's resolution completely inevitable. Perhaps if the story had more to it than a series of drones about the meaning of love, the foreshadowing would have felt more organic, or at least less obnoxious. But the dialogue only has any aim when it telegraphs what will happen next. And when there aren't any characters, it's hard to care.
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Sundance Journal: Friday, Jan. 16

Almost all of my Friday Sundance experience is a bit of a haze. If it weren't for some memorable films, the whole day would be a blur.

After I discovered that I planned my day based on an erroneous press schedule printout that placed every film one time slot earlier, I had to wing it. Sleep-deprived from a long night of prep, I waited in vain for a shuttle. It didn't show, so I walked, then ran, to my first screening, only to find out that there was in fact no screening. It wasn't that something else was screening. No screening existed at the theater.

Thinking fast, I scrambled into the only screening that I could possibly make on time, the Animation Spotlight (which I'd planned to see later on). This year's collection of animated shorts was stronger than last year's, and featured new comers as well as veterans of indie animation. Pes offered an inspired, colorful bit of pixilation called "Western Spaghetti," which depicts the preparation of an everyday meal with a twist: the food is made entirely from inedible household materials. A hand runs a spool of yarn across a cheese grater, and little pieces come out. Bill Plympton's "Hot Dog" found his lovable dog character trying to earn a job with the fire department.

And Don Hertzfeldt debuted "I'm So Proud of You," the second chapter in what Hertzfeldt now describes as a three-part series. It contains much of the same experimentation with multiple passes and different animated forms as the first chapter, "Everything Will Be OK," which also played at Sundance. It's been a while since I've seen "Everything Will Be OK," but I'm interested to see how well the films build on one another.

I then saw Lynn Shelton's "Humpday," a very funny comedy starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard. An improvised, handheld endeavor in the same vein as the films Duplass has made with his brother, it is observant, but more important, fucking hilarious. I'll have more on it later.

I then caught Spike Lee's musical theater concert film, "Passing Strange," and the atmospheric noir throwback "The Missing Person" (Read the City Weekly blog).

I ended the night with Carlos Cuarón's "Rudo y Cursi," which I again covered for the City Weekly blog.

And I wrote more on opening night film "Mary and Max".
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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sundance starts…NOW!

I just finished watching the opening film of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, "Mary and Max," and the festival is now officially underway. The charming film marks the feature debut of Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for his 2003 short "Harvie Krumpet." It tells the story of two unlikely friends, she a grade-schooler in suburban Melbourne, Australia and he an anxious middle-aged man in New York City, who forge a deep bond as pen pals. Elliot infuses his story with whimsy, playful design and dry, morbid humor. It's a film for adults who still like to look at the world through the eyes of children.

It's also worth noting that Sundance has opened two consecutive festivals with very good films, last year's being "In Bruges." I am concerned that the programmers have permanently tarnished their reputation of opening with movies that are either agonizingly bad or completely forgettable.

I'll have lots of Sundance coverage here and elsewhere in the following 10 days. For starters, be sure to check out City Weekly's "5x5=25" retrospective, written by Scott Renshaw and myself. (WARNING: DISTURBING STILLS FROM "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE" APPEAR. Seriously. The picture is even bigger in print. And on the cover. You just can't hide from it.) I'll try to keep the links coming here, but you will find me blogging at City Weekly too. I also hope to help my friends at Film Threat out with some reviews.
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Jeremy's Top 10 Films of 2008

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
With an unflinching eye on the truth, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" unforgettably depicts the story of an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. With steadfast reservedness, Mungiu examines a society in which the disadvantaged and unfortunate are either ignored or exploited. Without contrivance, the film takes a gripping journey to the dark side.

Under the scrutiny of long, merciless takes, the film's performances are true accomplishments. Anamaria Marinca's protagonist exceeds the bonds of friendship with bravery but increasingly weariness. And Vlad Ivanov perfectly captures evil as an abortionist with deliberate and manipulative bargaining skills.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" studies the challenges, joys and perils of maintaining a positive attitude. Sally Hawkins stars as the personable Poppy, who insists on being friendly and outgoing to people, even if they'd rather be left alone. Leigh's screenplay is smart and observant, hopeful and honest, and his direction is down-to-earth and engaging. The scenes between Hawkins and Eddie Marsan as Poppy's driving instructor exemplify the film's straddling of humor and poignance, danger and bravery and danger.

3. Wendy and Lucy
A lovingly acted, quiet tragedy that unfolds without a false note, "Wendy and Lucy" offers a crushing look into the life of an unemployed drifter and her dog after their journey stalls in a small town in Oregon. "Old Joy" director Kelly Reichardt deftly portrays Wendy's (Michelle Williams) humanity, and that of those around her. No character acts for the convenience of the plot—everyone is a real person and they all have their reasons.

4. The Wrestler
Much of the praise for Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" has centered around Mickey Rourke's transformative performance, but the film deserves accolades on all accounts. Aronofsky crafts a delicate character portrait of a fragile man who never quite figured out how to give and receive love. A professional wrestler now a couple decades past his prime, he still longs for the gratification that he could only get in the ring. Maryse Alberti's up-close 16-mm photography and Aronofsy's endlessly creative direction propel the film—along with Rourke and cast-mates Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood—to greatness.

5. Paranoid Park
Gus Van Sant made two excellent film's this year, and his poetic meditation on youth and tragedy was even better than his Hollywood biopic. "Paranoid Park" journeys through a maze of unsteady memories, spiraling closer and closer to a place that its young protagonist (Gabe Nevins) doesn't want to go. In a flury of skateboarding, sex and personal connections, the truth slowly unveils itself. Van Sant displays his great control of cinematic form, gloriously melding his images with a variety of musical genres from Elliot Smith to opera to invoke a troubled, introverted psyche.

6. Pineapple Express
A buddy action movie about two guys who aren't equipped to be action stars or buddies, "Pineapple Express" is the most sublime of all pot comedies. David Gordon Green took a dramatic turn from his poetic meditations on southern life and proved his passion and understanding of the action genre. The film is entertaining both as an action film and as an hysterical deconstruction of the genre. And I haven't even mentioned James Franco and Seth Rogan. Too bad playing stoned doesn't have the same Oscar clout as playing a mentally disabled person.

7. Wall-E
The opening 30 minutes of "Wall-E" feature some of the most transfixing cinematic storytelling of the year. With almost no dialogue, they depict the film's plucky title robot as it travels through a deserted metropolis of waste that was earth, finding meaning in the trash that the planet's former inhabitants left behind. It's simple and hypnotic. With nods to science-fiction past and plenty of his own creativity, Andrew Stanton constructed a bleak vision of a future Earth overrun with garbage and evacuated by humans who would rather sit around and watch TV than solve their own problems. The robots whom they expect to serve them for them reveal some of the best character design and animation I've ever seen.

8. Man on Wire
James Marsh's documentary on Philippe Petit' rogue attempt to string and walk a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers is at once a heist movie, a tale of friendship and an inspirational testament to the importance of following your dreams. With a mix of intimate recollections and carefree recreations, Marsh captures the glory of youth and the joy of mad dreams.

9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" takes in the beauty of Spain while studying the different forms in which love can emerge. Writer/director Woody Allen finds himself in excellent form as he follows the intertwined stories of two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johnansson) who spend a revealing summer in Spain. The quality of the writing and acting really shines in the scenes between Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who play on-and-off lovers and artists. Note the ways they shift between English and Spanish, and how it relates to their comfort zones.

10. Rachel Getting Married
Like most everything in life, familial love is rarely as ideal or as easy as we'd like it to be. The simple act of enjoying a celebration together can be a great struggle, and Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" pulls together all the nagging regrets and hang-ups as well as any film of its kind. This wedding party is so compelling partly because of the performances (including Anne Hathaway as the emotionally destructive sister), and partly because Demme's handheld-style exudes authenticity. The family's house constantly feels alive—like a living, breathing, organic component of the movie. You get the feeling that the handheld camera could do a 180-degree turn, head up or down the stairs or go outside and find other characters busily preparing for the big event.

Tied for 11th:
The Dark Knight
In Bruges
Still Life
Snow Angels

Honorable Mention
My Brother is an Only Child
Boy A
Encounters at the End of the World
The Fall
Funny Games
Ghost Town
Let the Right One In
My Winnipeg
Role Models
Standard Operating Procedure
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Monday, January 12, 2009

Microsoft Creates Most Awesome Software Ever

Remember when someone re-dubbed the voice-over of the promotional video for Microsoft's Surface? Well, this video above is the 100-percent-original Microsoft ad. "Microsoft, huh? So it's pretty easy to use?"

If that doesn't make you a believer, listen to Songsmith in action, paired with America's favorite douchebag, David Lee Roth. I can't believe I spent all that time recording music when I could have waited for Songsmith to do it for me.

(via Gruber.)
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Thursday, January 1, 2009

You Can't Stop Progress

What the hell snarky comment am I supposed to add to this?

San Diego -- Dec 23, 2008 -- Night of the Living Dead is getting a unique dimensional twist that promises to pull viewers closer to the undead action. The team of Legend Films and PassmoreLab is bringing new life to the undead by converting the previously colorized genre-defining zombie film into jaw-dropping 3D. The enhanced 1968 George Romero cult classic is slated for release on April 1, 2009.

From what I can tell, it's not a joke. I guess we can only hope that this is the start of new, 3-D versions of many a classic film. We can call the process "vomitization."
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