Category Archives: England

IMDb Top 250: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

WIPE VS. IMDb

Director: Edgar Wright

Screenplay: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

IMDb rank: #232

IMDb user quote: “When my brother decided we were going to watch Shaun of the Dead, my initial reaction was ‘Oh God, this should be a load of rubbish.’ Well, how very wrong I was [. . .] I found that I was laughing, crying and cowering in fear all at the same time.” – mouse712, from United Kingdom, 10/10 review

Wipe’s take: I seem to recall that back in 2004, months before it was released theatrically in North America, Shaun of the Dead was being christened online as a slice of geek heaven by the infamous Harry Knowles and his staff of critics at aintitcool.com—a.k.a. fanboy central. It’s not difficult to see why Shaun clicked with the Ain’t it Cool crowd (whose readers I suspect frequent IMDb user boards as well), since the movie comes equipped with various geek-culture bona fides. For one, it’s written and directed by, and stars members of the cast and crew of British Channel 4 cult series Spaced (which up until recently I had confused with the BBC sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf—I was way off, but never mind). For another, the movie pays homage to the cult classic zombie films of director George A. Romero, meaning  that, in addition to its punning title, Shaun offers plenty enough in-jokes for Romero aficionados—and IMDb posters—to play spot-the-reference (e.g., Shaun works at Foree Electric, a hat-tip to actor Ken Foree of Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead [1978]). But most significantly of all, the film rewards genre familiarity—it’s such a rollicking good time because it plays so cleverly with zombie movie tropes, etc.—and thus is tailor-made for movie-nerd consumption.

Is it possible to be neither an internet fanboy (excuse the gendered term) nor a zombie-movie nut and still enjoy Shaun of the Dead? Sure, but I somehow doubt one could love the film (not to mention place it in a top 250) without identifying as one or both of these two species of viewer. I found the movie appealing enough in the early going, particularly for the charmingly offhand way it introduces the zombie apocalypse: bummed-out sales clerk Shaun (Simon Pegg) goes out one morning to grab a Coke at the corner deli and fails to register the fact that the groggy folks around him are the walking undead. Also amusing is a subsequent scene where Shaun and his slovenly roommate Ed (Nick Frost) discover that the “drunk girl” shambling around their backyard is not what she seems to be. It’s a near-constant parade of witty little visual jokes such as these that makes Shaun initially so easy to like. Also to its credit, the movie doesn’t oversell its jokes with flashy technical flourishes, à la Pegg, Wright and co.’s  subsequent genre send-up Hot Fuzz (2007), a film I found so stylistically abrasive and annoying (however intentional this might have been) that I had to switch it off after about an hour’s time.

I can’t say that Shaun of the Dead did much more than amuse me, however. Its attempts at pathos, particularly in certain late scenes between Shaun and his mum (Nicola Cunningham), never catch the right tone, despite Pegg’s ability to produce anguished tears on cue. I think this failure can be attributed to the film’s generally cheery nature: there’s something approaching delight in the way the film frames the predicament of Shaun and the others, and the more the movie winks at genre conventions (especially in the jokey manner in which the film’s zombies are dispatched, and later all-but domesticated), the further one has to strain to invest any real emotion in the material. As funny as the movie sometimes is, one misses the underlying moral and political seriousness of Romero’s zombie pictures–not to mention the social/familial/sexual currents that stir the Haitian voodoo classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943)–which help to remind you why zombies are such a resonant film subject in the first place. Romero’s zombie apocalypse enacted a radical confrontation with human values; if Shaun of the Dead has anything to say about values and relationships it doesn’t amount to much more than a lesson one might glean from a sitcom. All the emotional, social, and moral implications of the characters’ trauma vanish blissfully and tidily in the film’s silly denouement. Cue laugh-track, and fade out.

Does the movie merit top-250 status? No, but as far as zombie comedies go, it’s better than last year’s Zombieland.

-Cam

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Overlord (1975)

Director: Stuart Cooper

Screenplay: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper

World War II is possibly one of the most difficult subjects to aptly portray on film.  That’s not to say that it isn’t attempted again and again to varying degrees of success, but more recent fare such as Edward Zwick’s Defiance, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds lean toward frivolity as a result of their historical inaccuracy and lack of depth.  It’s hardly surprising then, that of the monstrous offering of WWII films, only a small percentage can be viewed as anything more than cheap entertainment.

Perhaps it seems strange to fault a film for being nothing more than entertainment. Yet when it comes to depicting the horrors of World War II, film does indeed have a duty to uphold.  Historical accuracy is primary, but also needed are attempts at preserving the fragments and complexities that make up war.  Exploration of these aspects not only strengthens what we know of the war, but also creates the opportunity for an audience to consider perspectives beyond those typically framed by the standard war film.

For its part, Overlord is above and beyond the standard war film, playing out like a feverish dream and toying with the intimacy one might experience from secretly reading someone’s diary.  The film practically breathes, it’s so deeply entrenched in what it means for a young man to literally hand over his life to the state in a time of war.  Melding actual archival World War II footage into the film, Overlord riffs on neo-realism several decades after it was made fashionable by filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Kenji Mizoguchi.  The story follows Tom, a quiet 20-year-old, as he’s called up for basic training before ultimately taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The film itself is pure poetry: from the direction, to the dialogue to the seamless integration of archival war footage alongside the brilliant camera work of cinematographer John Alcott.  All of it induces a powerful range of emotions: confusion, fear, love, innocence lost, helplessness and finally a morose acceptance of it all.  As Tom submits himself to the state’s will, he’s become what he’s trained to be: a soldier; an empty vessel designed strictly to complete an objective, come what may.

Though Overlord doesn’t investigate the war as a whole, it does a superb job of investigating a life – a single solitary life, and what it means to simply relinquish that life for what would be considered a greater cause.  In the process of this,  Overlord makes no judgements on these circumstances, but it does encourage its audience above all, to feel.

-mike

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Career Girls (1997)

Director: Mike Leigh

Screenplay: Mike Leigh

I’m no Mike Leigh aficionado, but from what I understand this 1997 dramedy ranks as one of the British director’s “lighter” pictures. As accurate as that judgment may be–especially when you compare the film to its immediate predecessor in the Leigh canon, Secrets & Lies (1996)–there’s no denying Career Girls’ breezy pacing and oddball humour are cut with a palpable melancholy and some pretty weighty themes (not unlike Leigh’s most recent film Happy-Go-Lucky [2008]).

Career Girls follows two former college roommates and best friends, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), as they reunite for two days in London after six years apart. Juxtaposing this rather polite reunion between two seemingly well-adjusted women are flashbacks to the girls’ messier college days, a time when the pair first bonded over The Cure, Wuthering Heights, and their own unique cases of borderline-pathological flakiness: Annie jittery and painfully shy, suffering from itchy facial dermatitis; Hannah motor-mouthed, bouncy and gesticulative. We gradually learn that, despite the dramatic change in their appearances, the girls in their thirties still hang on to many of the aspirations, disappointments, and neuroses of their college days; these include memories of ill-fated romantic connections with two young men (Joe Tucker and an unforgettable Mark Benton), whom they will meet again under wildly coincidental–and in one instance, deeply painful–circumstances during the course of their two-day reunion.

Leigh does a rather amazing job creating symmetry between the flashbacks and the present day sequences; at times, we find we’re watching the younger Annie and Hannah grow into maturity, just as their older selves regain some of their early college silliness. But more impressive is how Leigh and his actors (who, as is typical of all Leigh films, worked together in fleshing out the script during preproduction workshops) bring the emotional content of the material into relief during the film’s final scenes, where past and present are synchronized in the characters’ lingering pain, uncertainty, and hope. All told, it is Leigh and company’s goofy, sad image of life as a constant reach for happiness–a happiness impossible without togetherness–that draws a heavy sigh to one’s heart as the film closes.

-Cam

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