Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Nice Guys Finish...:
a review of Cellular and Shaun of the Dead

What a fun pair of movies I got to see this past weekend, a couple of b-movies (at least in spirit) made with a surprising amount of skill and humor. The first few minutes of Cellular were clunky and bad, breaking perhaps the number one rule of action/suspense by cutting away from the action just as it's getting started, undercutting its own effectiveness. There's also some eyeball-rolling, slacker-buddy dialogue and some hardly-better mother-son bonding both imported direct from Exposition City, but after setting the bar low and making you wonder whether you shouldn't duck down the multiplex to the next theater, things begin to improve quickly. The film is low-rent in concept--clearly stealing from a host of other films, including Speed, Phone Booth (the director's previous film), and The Panic Room (not to mention cellphone commercials, which come to mind in scenes that feature generically beautiful L.A. types)--yet what made it great fun for me is that it's never pretentious about it, and the film keeps a marvelous sense of humor throughout the film, never detracting from its genuinely skillful suspense. As a twist on the cop-who's-about-to-retire cliche, the film has William H. Macy (the ever-quirky, masterful and entertaining character actor) as a cop who's about to leave the force to open a day-spa with his wife--watch him fight crime with algae pasted all over his face. The film spoofs L.A. types left and right (the self-centered lawyer comes to mind), and the film knows when to tease you, as when our hero goes to rescue a guy at an airport bar knowing only that he's wearing a Lakers jacket, and you know there will be more than one.

At the same time, the film absolutely delivers as a thrill ride. Kim Basinger is excellent as a modern-day damsel-in-distress. Clearly, if you need an actress who can convey sexy, middle-aged fragility, Kim's your go-to girl. She's every bit as good here as she was in the recent, Oscar-caliber drama, The Door in the Floor. Newcomer Chris Evans is off-the-charts on the beefcake scale, and he struck me at first as somewhat generic, but that very quality helps him convincingly portray an average Joe who happens to be in the only one in a position to help a stranger. (Judging from other people's reactions to Evans, he could become a star quickly.) Then there's the talented Jason Statham, himself a draw for many people (check out a fan site gallery), who seems to have found himself a prosperous niche playing menacing bad guys. (I enjoyed his performance in Ghosts of Mars, a decent but enjoyable b-movie featuring zombies...on Mars.)

I'm a sucker for this kind of story, because even if it's implausible that we would rise to such (sometimes crazy) levels of heroism, it's a great dream to subscribe to (the idea of helping a stranger--it stirs memories of Judeo-Christian education, among other kinds). I'd like to think that learning to identify with heroes helps us practice to act the part ourselves, should we ever be called on (no doubt in a less Hollywood context), and even if that's wishful thinking, I still enjoy such stories.

As for Shaun of the Dead, I wanted chuckles, and I more than I expected. The surprisingly polished script uses zombies to tell the tale of a graying, er, greying--I'll use the British spelling--slacker everyman who seems to be stuck in a post-collegiate phase which he needs to grow out of (he's 29, natch): best friend mooching off of him, girlfriend getting frustrated with the unromantic, corner-pub routine, slacker job getting embarassing, etc. I detect the influence of Joss Whedon's Buffy on this film--using supernatural pop-culture mythology as a fresh approach to the standard rite-of-passage story. In other words, the storytellers have a purpose (rare enough, these days), so you can relax knowing you're in good hands. There are many clever laughs in the first half of the film (and at the very end), but in the second half the film explores somewhat darker material (in a nutshell, death). Some critics lamented this, but I think it's good to see the filmmakers stretch. The importance of raising one's personal ambitions is, after all, the point of Shaun's story. Simon Pegg demonstrates quite a surprising range as an actor--comedy, fear, anger, remorse, grief. That can't be said of any of the other actors, because every other character exists solely to illustrate something about Shaun, so there wasn't much for them to work with, but Penelope Wilton and, of course, Bill Nighy as the father-in-law turn in some strong work. If you're gorephobic, there's really only one moment in the pub later in the film to worry about. The rest is silly fun, very easy to handle. What as shame that First Daughter made more money at the box office. Spread the word, and help make this film the hit it deserves to be. Rating (for both): 3 stars out of 4



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