Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights, and David O. Russell's I Love Huckabees

Starring:
  • British Slackers
  • The Worst of Odessa, Texas
  • A Lot of Stars with a Lot of Brains
Directed by a Funny Danny Boyle, Mr. Reliable, and David O' Really?
"It could be worse. I couldda got that coaching gig in Crawford."
Dropping Like Leaves: My Half-Assed October

In the twilight of 2004, there are some pretty good flicks at the multiplex. After a few years where the year's third film season went from tony to trashy due to an increased need to place award-worthy flicks closer to the attention span of washed-up actors and technical Union bosses, fall became a place to put Ashley Judd vehicles not up to snuff against summer blockbusters. But while the films out now are pretty good, ole Jimmy O's mind has been a bit pre-occupied. After (finally) getting through the Missouri Taxidermy quiz, I quit my position at the Kansas Toxic Waste Depository in Emporia to find work in stuffing animals, tanning skins, and other forms of animal artistry. Taxing to be sure. But this year has also proven important to our country as well and I am committed to ushering change. A time when the very fabric of our democratic tapestry has threatened to un-spool. I have devoted a disproportionate amount of time to several campaigns attempting to discredit and neutralize dark forces on the country's landscape. And I have already been victorious twice: First, I have unveiled Bill O'Reilly penchant for sexually harassing Middle Eastern food (a mission that began with my review of O'Reilly's Those Who Trespass. I called O'Reilly an angry pervert months before court proceedings confirmed it. Read it all HERE). All I had to do was pry some margaritas into one dumb MU journalism grad and then BAM! You've got yourself a lawsuit with all the smut and excessive dirtiness of the Starr Report. I also exposed Ashlee Simpson as a talentless fraud capitalizing off her sister's career. That was not easy to pull off with such sparse evidence, but it's amazing the access one gains by servicing Lorne Michaels with a hand job. And there's this here election which has got me so stressed out that I have nightmares about Missouri Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt single-handedly destroying western civilization. And this time it's not over some sort of repressed homo imagery but a real concern about the legitimacy of the election. Mercy! This has left little time to review any films. So I find myself pulling a half-assed attempt to properly address some great films out there. Please enjoy. And go vote. Or Die. Or something like that.

Desperate Zombies: Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead

There is one joke central to the new British comedy Shaun of the Dead and it takes dead-center aim at not only the traditional zombie film, but also adding to the recent cinematic conversation on modern life. The joke is that people can rise from the dead, stumble around the Earth in a slack-jawed daze, and no one would hardly notice the difference between a zombie and a normal urbanite. Normally, a one-joke premise wears thin over the ninety-minute duration of a film but Edgar Wright and his talented cast find numerous layers of the concept to explore. It's a bleak morning in the residential neighborhoods of London. Shaun (Co-writer Simon Pegg) must deal with the pissy ramblings of his stiff-lipped roommate Pete (Pete Serafinowicz) and the slacking aloofness of his old college-buddy/couch-crasher Ed (Nick Frost). He slips off to the local convenient store to buy some coffee and smokes. He goes to work at an electronics store where his age of 29 makes him ten years the senior to anyone else working there. Shaun really wanted to be a DJ, but that dream slipped away once college ended and the real world attempted to take over. Instead of ceding, Shaun slipped back with Ed to play video games and to drink down at the Winchester pub. (Incidentally, the Winchester gun is the weapon of choice in Night of the Living Dead.) Now, he's a real screw up; unable to reserve a table for the anniversary dinner he is share with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). The day after Liz breaks up with him, he forgets his mom's birthday, and his boss doesn't show up to work, Shaun begins his normal routine all over again. But this time, the streets are filtered with drooling and brain-hungry zombies. He hardly notices until a checkout clerk attacks him and Ed in their garden. The two flat mates fight off the impending zombie attack with regular household items like a cricket bat and a garden shovel. Determining that they can't trust the British media's claims to "stay inside", Shaun and Ed ditch the infested Pete to save Liz and Shaun's mom. Their plan? To drive them back to the Winchester and to wait out the event. You know, kind of how Shaun and Ed have waited out their twenties. Anyway, matters is complicated by Liz's flat mates, David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis), who complain about Shaun's plan even as they go along with it. They also meddle with Liz's new found interest with the take-charge and defiant Shaun. In the end, good guys prevail and the zombies give our depraved culture another issue to exploit and to smother. One must view Chris Martin's cameo playing himself as the organizer of "Zomb-Aid" or the reality shows that make zombies compete for big cash prizes. Who else would organize "Zomb-Aid" if not Chris Martin?

Shaun of the Dead is not a parody of the zombie film genre, per se. Certainly, it takes digs at these film through subtle digs through the film like the character's inabilities to call the undead zombies. This is a clear nod to filmmakers like George Romero and Tom Savini who actually never use the "Z" word in any of their films. But, Shaun keeps a healthy interest with acting like a legitimate horror film. Shaun refuses to use the film's gore for slapstick like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson and actually remains a technically proficient horror film. If these films are measured for effectiveness by their "jump" factor, then I give the film about a five or six. One per jump. That makes the balance between horror and comedy all the more impressive. Fans of the film - and specific moments in Shaun - suggest the film is a direct countenance to Danny Boyle's 2003 28 Days Later... Where that film showed an epidemic leading British civilization to an anarchic state only found in lesser developed countries plagued by mass epidemic, horrendous civil unrest, or genocide. Shaun suggests that Western society is at that point and the zombies are only a reflection of our current apathetic and mind-numbing state. But that argument fails on a few levels. First, 28 Days Later... is not technically a zombie film. All of the undead are simply infected...with RAGE!!!! More importantly, 28 Days Later... seemed more interested with the structural response to such an epidemic, with its third-act indictment of the military-industrial complex. Not necessarily a subject ripe with humor and one that Shaun essentially avoids. No, Shaun of the Dead is more interested in using the British slacker comedy idea and flopping it into a horror film. On the cusp of the BBC's The Office's and The Full Monty's success in the United States, we have become consciously aware of the Motherland's complex with cubicle living and blue-collar hi jinks that seemed as the eminent domain of the Yanks. But even with America's obsession with the horror film, no filmmaker has thought to take the slacker or the office drone and make them walk side-by-side with the undead. Now, this seems like very obvious symbolism. The comedy of the film closely follows this theme, by keeping banal conversations mixed with the zombie-slaying. There's a very Seinfeld-ian piece of continuing dialogue about a dog's ability to look up. And watching a pool-cue attack staged to a Queen song is pretty damned funny. In addition, Pegg and Wright go to great measures to create Shaun as a very intriguing hero. Shaun's a man comfortable with his slacking ways but always yearning for more. A man who truly loves him mum, his girlfriend, and his old chap. And a man who can rise to the challenge, evolve as a character, and kick some serious zombie ass. Bloody wicked stuff.

Playing in Poetry, Living in Prose: Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights

In the traditional football film, the game is a metaphorical battle for life and death. The players, the coaches, the groupies, and the fans exist for nothing more than the season’s end when they can relish in inevitable victory. But the collective lives and deaths of these characters end at the exact point where the film ends: At the final game. The fate of these souls rest in the cup of a championship trophy with nothing considered beyond. In the end, that’s why most movies about football (or sports films in general) aren’t very good. The only metaphor left for the game to represent is the end of the film and the end of the audience’s concern for transpired events. The “football is life” mantra, alas, is just another cliche to stack against the self-destructive running back and the virginal-slut cheerleader. Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights - an adaptation of H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's novel - documents the tumultuous 1988 season of Odessa TX's Permian High Panther's football team. This is a true story where football - for the characters - really IS a matter of life and death. And not just for the players who pin the hope and dream of a prosperous life outside of Odessa on the events that transpire on the field. College scholarships, money, fame, and girls are always the traditional trappings; as they are in this film. But this is also about keeping an elderly family member out of the nursing home or hoping that success lifts a father out of alcoholism. These are tragic circumstances for these West Texas high schoolers and made even more dire by the fact that a successful football season is the only probable solution. But it's also about the football fans who flock to the ultra-slick stadium every weekend to escape their lives crippled by a depressed oil industry that dominates the town. Friday Night Lights takes the concept of a traditional football film and creates a sad yet insightful film about the sport and the emotion it instills into the participants and the spectator. On top of all this, the characters get a glimpse of their potential fates by the ghosts of previous championship teams floating around. It's as though Odessa exists as a purgatory for foolish hope and lost opportunity. Weighty stuff for a football movie plunked down in theatres during pigskin season. But director Berg, Billy Bob Thornton, and a talented cast of players make this more of a morality play than standard sports flick.

The real Odessa, TX isn't necessarily the depressing small town portrayed in Friday Night Lights. But the film captures the general overall emotional feeling of a town like Odessa. Scorching summer days, gloomy rainstorms, and blazing stadium lights are the only visual relief from a maudlin line of dilapidated. Coach Gary Gaines (Thornton, channeling his abusive father/basketball coach in this role) is very good at his job. This does not indicate that he likes the job very much. "Don't believe in sports curses," he advises a young player before a pivotal moment in the season. "Winning and losing feels about the same. It just looks different on the outside." Not necessarily the most inspiring thing to tell a 17-year-old, but telling of his character all the same. Gaines much coach and mold this team comprised of West Texan cowboys and African-American working class with the pressures of delivering an undefeated season and the egos that are involved with such a program. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) eyes big scholarships to some impressive universities with the riches that entail before his season and life are side-swiped by an injury. Don Billingsly (Garrett Hedlund) just wants to escape the pressure imposed by his father (Tim McGraw, in an acting debut that must juggle pathos and sadness). All the same, the game of football offers an evening of hope for all of them. When they take the field, there's a hope that this game is their ticket out. And for some, it is. But the town - the previous champions the legions of fans who blather on sports radio about the glory of previous seasons - let the audience know that many of the characters will remain in Odessa, state championship or not. And the measure of their success is not by winning the game, but how they take the win or the loss. This is how they treat their families. This is how they are as friends. This is certainly a bitter pill for an audience to swallow, especially watching a sports film that always promises optimism and excitement. But Berg isn't interested in a nice and neat football film. He wants to make us grunt and sweat along with these characters. He feels their pain and we feel it as well. The Friday Night Lights get pretty bright. Can you take the heat?

So This isn't About Arkansas' Governor?: David O. Russell's I Love Huckabees

The whole philosophy of explaining existence seems rather silly; like a dog chasing its own tail. We exist, so what other questions could remain? This is the central thesis of David O. Russell's "existential comedy" I Love Huckabees. The film is a screwball comedy involving characters so preoccupied with questions about the meaning of life that they are barely able to live it. Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lilly Tomlin) operate a detective agency designed to answer the "big questions" about people's lives through a mixture of surveillance and academic theory. Like most detectives, their business thrives off the insecurity and self-doubt of their clients. Who are their clients and what are the possible connections they have with one another? There's Albert (Jason Schwartzman), an environmentalist who runs the Open Space Coalition that is distracted by the "coincidental" run-ins he has with a Sudanese doorman but may actually be more distressed by the way Huckabee's corporate shill Brad Stand (Jude Law) convinced him that his company was really interested in the environment. You see, Huckabee's is that large, Target-type store looking to develop a market in every part of the country, including a lovely piece of marsh being protected by Open Spaces. Brad also has issues with his existence, although it's tough to discern if these concerns are real or mainly postured to improve Brad's image. Brad's existential dread may be tied directly to his girlfriend Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), super model and the "voice and face" of the Huckabee's store. She is also insecure about her looks being the only reason she has a job, and breaks down by wearing sweats and an Amish bonnet. The Jaffes add client Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) to the mix. Corn is a blue-collar fireman messed up since that "September thing" preoccupied with petroleum oil ruining the Earth and with philosophical literature. So preoccupied that he rides a bike to fire calls and gets ran out of his house. The Jaffes team him up with Albert and therefore, he enters the lives of Brad and Dawn. This seemingly flies in the face of the Jaffe's theory of life existing on its own with little interference. But that is the least of the flaws discovered in the Jaffe's practice. Further complicating matters is the Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), the Jaffe's French counterpart who takes a totally different take on existence. Where the Jaffe's see everything tied together, Caternie believes that the world is "meaningless and filled with nothing". Certainly a different perspective from what has been offered in the film up to this point, and causes more concern among the characters. In the end, the characters and the plot have spiraled so far from ordinary that both philosophical perspectives are somewhat dismissed and everyone realizes that the truth is somewhere in the middle. If the truth is there at all.

I Love Huckabees takes on some pretty deep and complicated subject material. But since Russell sees the entire premise of both philosophical studies as an enormous farce, he's given the chance to explain what he's talking about, make fun of it, and debunk it. This may seem juvenile and destructive to high-minded intellects, but they're the brunt of Russell's screw-ball antics anyway. I mean, just look at Dustin Hoffman's hair in this film. That bowl-cut screams pretentious college professor. Specifically, I use the phrase "screw-ball" to describe these absurd characters in these absurd situations. Yet, for all the humor that involved with the proceedings - Wahlberg's anti-sprawl rant, the character development arising from Law's constant reference to Shania Twain - the issues resonate. Existence is a subject that hits us at desperate moments of our life span or family development. And while some have criticized I Love Huckabees for not fully developing the characters, I feel that argument misses the point. The detectives all represent philosophical inclinations that clash. The characters represent twenty-something angst that spans various social and cultural areas. Albert is the whiny liberal distressed about his purpose. Tommy is the blue-collar guy misunderstood by everyone around him. Dawn has issues with body images and style. And Brad is a corporate, conservative guy stewing under the surface. The Jaffes and Vauban clash with their very different views on the nature of reality. These characters are supposed to represent ideas and posturing, and Russell has a grand time watching all of them conflict, grind, and ultimately self-destruct. The actors know they're playing arch-types and make hilarious hay out of the material. And the material is deep and dark and dense. But I Love Huckabees pulls off a miracle by presenting the material as funny and light. It's not for everyone, but it may just be for everything.

Shaun of the Dead:
1/2
1 and 1/2 Danny Boyle Plus 2 The Office Equals 3 and 1/2 for Shaun of the Dead
Friday Night Lights:
1/2
2 and a Half Varsity Blues Plus 1 and a Half Mark Mangino Equals 3 and a Half for Friday Night Lights
Equals
2 Nick and Nora Plus 2 Waking Life Equals 4 for I Love Huckabee's
See It For:
Dustin Checks Out Bill O'Reilly's Love with The No-Spin Vibrator