SHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE GRUDGE, and SAW
Halloween has come and gone, but three horror flicks are currently in theaters and - surprise! - two of them are actually good.
Shaun of the Dead, the British zombie comedy currently playing at the Brew & View, is, for more than half its length, the most entertaining mixture of laughs and scares since the heydey of Sam Raimi's B period, and its central joke is a doozy: The dead have arisen in a depressed suburb of London, and for a long time, no one there seems to notice. (I bet Mike Leigh is kicking himself for not thinking of that one.) Director Edgar Wright's film runs a bit out of steam before rebounding with an inspired climax, but it features over a dozen laugh-out-loud moments and a refreshingly macabre attitude, and leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play off each other beautifully. Meanwhile, the box-office smash The Grudge doesn't depend much on performers or wit or even basic coherence, and I still had a terrific time at it; Takashi Shimizu's remake of his Japanese cult hit Ju-On is a spare, visually elegant horror work with numerous effective "Boo!" moments, and I much preferred it to the Americanized version of The Ring. The scares in The Grudge are imagery-dependent and, thankfully, the imagery here is creepy and suggestive; despite its repetitive narrative, the movie is a tantalizingly moody and engrossing piece. As for Saw, yet another crass, uninspired, and deeply improbable bastard child of Seven, the only thing remotely scary about it is the horrific overacting of star Cary Elwes; the movie is so eye-rollingly convoluted and abysmally acted that I began giggling in the first 10 minutes and never stopped. But hey, at least horror fans have other options out there; when it comes to scare flicks that don't insult your intelligence, two out of three ain't bad at all.
SHALL WE DANCE?
Against all probability, Richard Gere has become the most likeable of actors. This man whose screen presence was once so off-putting - self-conscious, withholding, almost brazenly narcissistic - has, in movies as diverse as Runaway Bride, Unfaithful, The Mothman Prophecies, and, of course, Chicago, finally secured an enormous amount of audience empathy; he might never be a teddy bear, but he is, at last, someone you'd happily share a beer with. (He smiles more now than he used to, and as a result, we smile at him more.) Maybe it's Gere's newfound gregariousness that has made Shall We Dance? something of a hit, because I'd hate to think it was the film itself. This remake of the Japanese art-house hit from 1996 has now become a sappy, witless sitcom, one that trashes the contributions of its cast (among the injured parties are Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Lopez, Bobby Cannavale, and the great, too-rarely-seen Anita Gillette) and squanders the goodwill that audiences bring to it by failing to provide even one good, unedited dance sequence. It's one of those safe, squishy movies for the easily offended - My Big Fat Chicago Dance-Off - and I'm expecting to see the pilot for its TV spin-off on CBS any day now.
I HEART HUCKABEES
I Heart Huckabees is a goofy, nearly glorious mess. You might not necessarily understand it, and it doesn't hold together in any satisfying way, but the movie is filled with wonderfully quirky odds and ends; it's an intellectual Napoleon Dynamite with the ennui replaced with incessant chattering. Writer-director David O. Russell describes his latest work as "an existential screwball comedy," and that's an absolutely apt description: Ecological activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), tortured by a series of coincidences involving a young Afrikaner he's met, hires a pair of "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to, I guess, solve the mysteries of life, and as they root around for The Answers, even more Questions get raised as a result of Albert's involvement with a superstore mogul (Jude Law), his trophy wife (Naomi Watts), a French philosopher (Isabelle Huppert), and a conservation-obsessed firefighter (Mark Wahlberg, touching and very funny). The movie is like one of those all-night bull sessions you'd have in college - when it's four in the morning and you're high on coffee and cigarettes and aching to know What It's All About - but, surprisingly, it's only a little annoying; I Heart Huckabees has a playful, go-for-broke spirit and a willingness to try out new ideas that's very appealing, and the cast performs the nonsensical comedy adroitly. It's a lark, but a fascinating one, and I'd see it again in a heartbeat, even if I'm still not sure how much I enjoyed it this time around.
It's probably time for everyone - myself included - to stop making fun of poor Ben Affleck for the holiday turkey that is Surviving Christmas. Yes, he spends most of the movie mugging grotesquely, but the film is such a shambles that nobody could salvage it; with direction this misguided and a screenplay this god-awful, it's a wonder that anyone makes it through with their dignity intact. Yet a few actually do. I can't fathom how Christina Applegate, stuck in such a horrible role, still manages to be charming, but she does, and in one scene, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara, as the middle-class couple who lets Affleck's rich jerk into their home, suggest what they could have pulled off with a halfway-decent script. Enacting a holiday-themed skit at the dinner table, O'Hara's character lets loose with some deliriously wretched line readings - happy memories of O'Hara's Sheila "Mrs. Ron" Albertson fill your mind - that Gandolfini's sourpuss reacts to with incredulity bordering on disgust. She reminds him that she has had dramatic training. "You were in a high school production of Pippin," he counters. "You played wind." For the briefest of moments, Gandolfini and O'Hara make an appealingly unique pair of marrieds - like Edward Albee's George and Martha if they'd lost the will to fight - and it makes you resent the forced, desperately unfunny "holiday cheer" of Surviving Christmas all the more.
By the time this sees print, we should - fingers crossed - know who won the presidential election, and the movie has already vanished from a theater near you, so there's probably no point in a tirade against Celsius 41.11, the opposition's hate-filled diatribe against John Kerry. But in case curiosity compels you to seek it out on video, be warned that this work is only nominally interested in refuting Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11; it's just more of the standard conservative talking heads repeating the standard Bush stump speeches, and it's not nearly as much fun as the recent, laughably inept DVD release George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. Connoisseurs of the grisly, however, might enjoy the film for the pearls of insight offered by that family-friendly hack Michael Medved, who found Kerry "pompous" during their time together at Yale (gee, Mikey, is someone still upset about not getting laid in college?), and if you simply can't get enough of clips of the Twin Towers collapsing, fear not - Celsius 41.11 will give 'em to you. A dozen times over. To remind you of what would/will happen with John Kerry at the helm. Don't you miss this year's nuanced, intellectual, and - above all - subtle campaign season already?