Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Shaun Of The Dead

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Simon Pegg
Rated: R
Red Flags: Gory Monty-Pythonesque Zombie Violence, Language

Preconceived Notions: The Full Monty meets Dawn Of The Dead
The Bottom Line: Goofy, gory fun with a British accent.

If your friends, your neighbors, and the guy at the checkout counter turned into zombies overnight, would you notice? The makers of Shaun Of The Dead bet you won't. And neither does its title character for the first act of the film. It's a sly observation about the monotony of our lives. And it's the setup for what could be the biggest sleeper hit of the fall movie season.

Simon Pegg is Shaun, a British appliance store salesman with a shallow, mundane existance. Go to work, go to the pub, play video games with slacker flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) demands more, but Shaun lacks the social competence to even plan a nice evening out. But it's still a step up from Ed, who's unemployed and glued to the couch.

As Shaun and Liz's relationship deteriorates, so is most of Great Britain. Something -- we don't know what -- is turning people into zombies, but Shaun's too clueless to notice as he channel surfs and walks right past the moaning dead. Shaun and Ed don't plug into what's happening until a couple of zombies show up in their backyard, and they finally figure out, hey, we've got to do something to save Liz and rescue Shaun's dear Mum.

Shaun Of The Dead is full of rapid-fire wit, and watching the film requires your full attention to get most of the jokes through the British accents. The film does have a few gory scenes, but even they look they're being pushed over the top for laughs: think the swordfight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail where the knight loses all his limbs.

Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the script with Pegg, doesn't go for the Scary Movie approach, finding much more fun in likable aimless blokes trying to save themselves between pints. We know these people and we care about them, especially Shaun's Mum, even if she has a git for a mate.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence

Preconceived Notions: Highly stylish, drenched with CGI, there may be something here if it's not too corny.
The Bottom Line: We have seen the future, and it works.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is the perfect example of CGI being used the right way, instead of the hyped way, as is too often the case now in Hollywood. Nearly every shot in this picture was filmed in a studio, against a blue screen, so digital artists could add the lush, 30's and 40's-era sets and artwork you see here. Not since The Hudsucker Proxy has a film plunged into such stylish a look, which borrows generously from old sci-fi serials, Flash Gordon among them. And you have to admire the lighting -- with shades and shadows resembling old comic books, or the old Superman cartoons, which had a major influence on director Kerry Conran's vision of the film.

The film is so awash in its visual dazzle that the plot becomes secondary. But here it is: Law is heroic pilot Joe Sullivan -- the "Sky Captain" -- and Paltrow his ex-lover and star newspaper reporter Polly Perkins. Both of them are racing to stop monstrous robots (picture an army of Iron Giants) from taking over the planet, at the command of a mad scientist trying to build the "World Of Tomorrow." Perkins is more Brenda Starr than Lois Lane. Sullivan is no Superman, but he's some flyer. Assisting their efforts: a gadget guru named Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and a one-eyed pilot named Franky (Jolie), who's Sullivan's match in flying skill and bravery. Complicating things: a soured romance between Perkins and Sullivan, and a still simmering one between Sullivan and Franky. Filmmakers have even digitally resurrected Sir Laurence Oliver, playing the mad scientist Sullivan and company are pursuing.

That leads us back to the CGI, which is so seamless, you give up wondering what's real and what's pixels. Ironically, millions of dollars went into re-creating some of the cheap effects of the black-and-white era. I was waiting for a shot of a spaceship with a sparkler burning in the back. But no, that's just not stylish enough. And amazingly, the picture only cost $70 million to make. I would've figured at least twice that.

Even with style, you gotta have substance. Sky Captain has it, what little is required, and purists are going to find all sorts of problems with the plot. But really, are those problems any worse than the ones in the serials this picture draws from. I think not. And the dialogue is loaded with plenty of clever riffs between Law and Paltrow.

Sky Captain is sure to get Oscar nods for Art Direction and Visual Effects. But we will have to wait to see whether this film marks a turning point for CGI in film, much as The Matrix did years earlier.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: *1/2
Starring: Cole Hauser, Tom Sizemore, Robin Tunney
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Some Implied Sex

Preconceived Notions: An actor gets revenge on photo-stalker. Sounds like Sean Penn's dream.
The Bottom Line: Not a pretty picture.

Maybe a picture tells a thousand words, as that old saw goes, but just one will describe Paparazzi: melodrama -- as defined by, as, "a drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts."

Something's wrong when a dictionary definition nails a review before I've even scratched the surface. And I get this feeling when I hear voiceover narration from the principal character in the opening moments of the picture -- only to never hear it again. That's two strikes right there.

Paparazzi is the dumbed-down, amped-up story of photographers stalking action star Bo Laramie (Hauser), a likable guy with an Aussie accent who's just hit the Hollywood big time with a picture called "Lethal Force." Remind you of anybody? Should I mention Mel Gibson is one of this film's producers?

Laramie has just moved into a nice home in Malibu off the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway for those of you who've never been to Southern California, and good grief, is it gorgeous) with a nice wife and a nice little boy. Only some big, bad, mean guys with cameras can't leave him alone. Laramie asks one of them to stop taking pictures of his boy at soccer practice, and he does -- for about 60 seconds. Laramie confronts the guy again, and this time, does a Sean Penn -- which is all caught on film of course.

For reasons I don't understand -- or maybe I should because this is Hollywood -- the situation drains from mere incomprehenability to inconceiveable insanity as a gang of paparazzi chase Laramie and his family in their car, a la Princess Di, leading to an accident which puts his son in a coma. Now this Mel Gibson clone is gonna have his "Payback."

But wait, these guys just can't stop taking pictures -- even putting tiny video cameras in Laramie's home so they can keep an eye on whether he's after them. Oooookaaaaay. As long as you're going to put cameras around your own domiciles -- or your back, too.

Paparazzi would be likable if were simply believable. It's actually listed as "comedy, drama" in Fandago's description. Remind me where I was supposted to laugh. Was it that accident chase scene? Was it where the guy was feeling up Laramie's wife as she lay unconcious? Was it all those shots of sleazy magazine covers? Maybe I should ask Mel.