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What’s all this then? (l-r) Moran, Ashfield, Pegg and Davis in Shaun of the Dead.

Love and Death
By Shawn Stone

Shaun of the Dead
Directed by Edgar Wright

In the incredibly clever and shockingly heartfelt British horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, the world ends not with a bang but with a giggle.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is only half-awake in his life to begin with. He may be 29 years old, but his relationships with his mum (Penelope Wilton), girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and pal Ed (Nick Frost) are barely post-adolescent. His job as an electronics salesman sucks, his girlfriend is tired of waiting for him to grow up and he practically lives in the neighborhood pub, the Winchester.

Part of the fun is that we know what’s happening long before hapless Shaun and Ed do. London has been deteriorating into an orgy of undead terror for an entire day, but when a zombie girl turns up in the backyard they think she’s wasted—and such a funny drunk that Ed takes a picture of her. Once they realize what’s going on, they spring into action. Their solution? Collect Shaun’s mum and girlfriend and hole up in the pub.

The filmmakers keep things moving with a series of witty, character-based comic riffs. Oafish Ed’s childishness comes in handy on the road, as he mows down zombies with a video game player’s glee. Liz’ friend Dianne (Lucy Davis), an actress, gives handy method-style lessons in how to imitate the undead; and sad-sack David (Dylan Moran), who fights with Shaun at every turn, picks the worst time possible to go into a snit over his repressed passion for Liz.

What holds everything together is a real conflict: Will Shaun grow up in time to save his family and friends? And if he can’t save them, can he at least just grow up? By not making the zombies the point of the story, Shaun of the Dead brings something fresh to this overplayed genre.

The film is built on two solid traditions, the British sitcom (the “Britcom”?) and the George A. Romero zombie universe. Many of the cast members and filmmakers first worked together on Spaced, a series about music- and movie-obsessed slackers. The rapport shows, and so does the wit: When deciding which Prince album to use as a weapon against an attacking zombie, Shaun can’t bear to toss Sign O’ the Times; the Batman soundtrack, however, is immediately chucked at the advancing undead.

Like the mediacentric slackers they celebrate, the filmmakers are certainly up on their Romero zombie films. Romero’s zombie universe isn’t the only one, but—much like Universal’s classic versions of the Dracula, Frankenstein and werewolf stories—it’s the best known and most fully absorbed into the public consciousness. As in the namesake 1979 film Dawn of the Dead, the undead zombies in Shaun of the Dead have very limited motor skills, some residual memory of their past life and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. It’s just that here, director Edgar Wright underplays the horror and emphasizes the comedy inherent in extremely clumsy and dull-witted monsters precipitating the end of the world.

This film is so good, in fact, maybe Jerry Seinfeld should give his old cast mates a call. Seinfeld with zombies would be a riot.

Game Boys

Criminal
Directed by Gregory Jacobs

The tagline for this remake of the Argentine film Nine Queens is posed in the form of a question: “Ever have the feeling you’re being played?” If you actually see the film, the correct answer is, “Yes, I just watched Criminal.”

That doesn’t mean the film isn’t entertaining; it is. It just doesn’t offer any surprises. Or, more to the point, it offers too many surprises.

Rodrigo (Diego Luna) is a newbie con artist pulling penny-ante thefts in a low-rent L.A. casino when experienced crook Richard (John C. Reilly) taps him for bigger things. It seems that Richard’s regular partner, “the Jew,” is currently unavailable for work, and Rodrigo, despite his inexperience, has a trustworthy aura Richard finds promising. So, Rodrigo renamed the more Anglo-sounding “Brian,” and Richard trail around the city scamming all manner of innocent people, from businesswomen to grandmothers.

Then, out of the blue, the pair stumble on a potential fortune. Without going into excessive detail, this lucrative criminal opportunity involves a couple of rare bank notes, a wily Irish billionaire and a sickly old forger. Funny thing, though—most of this action takes place in the upscale hotel where Richard’s estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is concierge.

You don’t have to be a crime-movie geek to know that nothing “out of the blue” ever happens in a flick like this. Coincidences are always fake; no one is what they seem. Diego couldn’t be that disarmingly straightforward. No way was Richard “accidentally” in need of a partner on the very day a couple of hundred grand falls right into his lap. Hell, that grandma they scammed is probably in on it, too.

In Criminal, you know the filmmakers are lying to you. The art is in the quality of the misdirection. On that level, cowriter and director Gregory Jacobs succeeds: The cinematic sleight-of-hand is such that everyone or no one in the film could be in on the scam. Jacobs, longtime assistant director to folks like the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh (who cowrote Criminal under the amusing nom de plume “Sam Lowry”) keeps the scenes brisk and the actors continually on the move, like sharks.

The problem is that everything goes by so fast that it’s impossible to care what’s happening to whom. Richard’s a bastard with a sympathetic, hangdog quality; Rodrigo is charming, but rips off people without remorse. That much is obvious in the first five minutes, and the characters never develop. (In point of fact, that much is obvious from the casting, as Reilly and Luna have built careers playing variations on these characters.)

When the surprise ending happens, it really is a surprise—but so what? In a world of liars and thieves, who cares which crooks win.

—Shawn Stone

Back to the Future

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Directed by Kerry Conran

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the digital fantasia composed by computer nerd Kerry Conran, invokes the wonderment and sense of adventure of classic sci-fi films such as The War of the Worlds, The Lost World, or anything based on the works of Jules Verne. Entirely computer generated except for the actors (most of them, anyway), the movie is redolent of old-time movie glamour, which it creates with high-tech film stock that shimmers with the mysterious depths of silver-nitrate prints. The desaturated palette is rather beautiful; this World of Tomorrow is as mutedly atmospheric as an idealized memory—and about as substantial.

The idealized memory is a pre-World War II world in which a lone hero (and his trusty allies) can thwart the machinations of a single madman (and his evil minions) bent on world domination. It’s also a time before plastic, iPods and cynicism, and therein lies much of its evanescent charm. Often enough, Sky Captain’s rotary phones, gothic skyscrapers, and dashing trench coats are as arresting as anything the characters are doing. And for a least the first half, that’s okay. Set in the late 1930s of our collective imagination, and opening in a New York City seemingly conjured out of the murk of German Expressionism, the film’s gorgeously detailed backdrops are works of art suitable for framing (the evocation of Radio City Music Hall is especially alluring). That our heroes are played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law—perhaps the closest performers today’s Hollywood has to the great faces of golden age—is an important factor considering that the live action is stiffly superimposed onto canned settings, and that the actors’ have only their facial expressions to distinguish them from the surrounding digital creation.

Paltrow is Polly Perkins, a daring reporter who cheekily disobeys her protective editor (Michael Gambon) in her quest for the Big Scoop. Law is Joe Sullivan, better known as Sky Captain, a freelance fighter pilot. Instead of the rise of Nazism—which doesn’t seem to exist in this innocent dreamscape—America is abuzz about the mysterious murder of a half-dozen famous scientists. Polly stumbles onto the story when she is contacted by a terrified German scientist, who tells her he is next on the hit list and leaves with her with a single clue: Dr. Totenkoph. (Totenkoph means “death head” in German; the film is awash in fascist iconography, much of it lifted from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.)

The first sci-fi sequence is a doozy: A squadron of 100-foot robots falls out of the sky and cracks the concrete with their footsteps as they invade the streets of Gotham. (Sound editing is one of the film’s most impressive technological feats.) Every bolt and metal seam of these mechanical behemoths is incredibly evocative, as is their colossus locomotion. Polly is saved from getting squashed like an ant by Sky Captain’s one-man blitz, and we eventually realize that these two scrappers used to be an item, until something, or someone, came between them in Shanghai. After Joe’s amiable genius mechanic, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) is captured by a flotilla of creepy robot octopi commanded by an evil woman in black (Ling Bai), Joe and Polly team up for the rescue, therein discovering Totenkoph’s megamaniacal plan to bring about the end of the world.

There are a couple of very nifty sequences involving Angelina Jolie as the dashing commander of a secret military base in the sky (Jolie is much more fun here than in any of her recent starring roles); and a treacherous adventure in Tibet made memorable by Conran’s hallucinatory Himalayan vistas. But by the time Polly and Joe close in on the omnipotent Totenkoph, the film has uploaded a wearying amount of indelible imagery, from the prehistoric jungle of King Kong to the booby-trapped fortresses of the Indiana Jones movies. Unspooled with the simplicity of a
Saturday-matinee serial, the plot then accelerates into a nostalgic nosegay of mad scientist, end-of-the-world, and futuristic-dystopia tropes that only accentuate the film’s inherent shallowness.

That Sky Captain is able to ward off tedium for as long as it does is due to the effervescent wit of the romance, which plays off the heroic twosome’s dueling egos and the crack-timing rapport of Paltrow and Law. It’s this old-fashioned romance, rather than Conran’s back-to-the future wizardry, that allows the World of Tomorrow to go out on a high note.

—Ann Morrow


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