‘Shaun Of The Dead’ Raves Accurate; ‘Ladder 49′ Avoids Sap, By Kurt Loder

Whatever raves you may have heard rocketing around about 'Shaun of the Dead' are pretty much accurate.

“Shaun of the Dead”: Killing Joke

“Shaun of the Dead” is about the funniest movie I’ve seen this year, and I think you’ll agree after you’ve seen it. The premise is simple: It’s a romantic comedy … with zombies. Need one say more? Whatever raves you may have heard rocketing around about this inspired English film — made by a group of London TV hotshots — are pretty much accurate (not always the case with raves).

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a mild-mannered, 29-year-old shlub, stuck in a dead-end job in an electrical appliance store. He spends most of his free time in a local pub, the Winchester, with his unemployed roommate, Ed, a proud fat slob who shares with Shaun an insatiable interest in video games. Apart from being an aimless slacker, Shaun has another problem: his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). After three years of waiting for Shaun (often in the Winchester) to make some sort of commitment — and to finally dump the ever-present Ed — Kate is beginning to suspect that an aimless slacker is all that Shaun will ever be.

Distracted by his love troubles, Shaun ventures out to the corner store one morning. There aren’t many other people around, but those there are move about with a slow, strangely lurching gait. Wrecked cars and swaths of trash litter the street. It’s a virtual diorama of ruin, but Shaun doesn’t notice. Inside the store, he walks down an aisle to the refrigerated soft-drink cabinet, reaches in and pulls out a can — without registering the big, bloody handprint on the glass, or the puddle of sticky stuff he slips in on the floor.

Shaun heads back to his apartment, pops on the TV and starts clicking through the channels, always managing to move on just as a news-reader appears with a story about … some sort of horrible thing that’s going on in North London. Ed looks out the window and sees a girl standing in the backyard. He and Shaun go down and confront her, but when she turns around to face them — yech! — there’s no ignoring the fact that she’s obviously … undead. Soon she’s joined by a much larger zombie, and defensive measures are clearly called for. Shaun and Ed drag out a crate of vinyl albums and begin squabbling over which ones they’re willing to wing at the intruders’ repulsive noggins. (The works of Mark Knopfler and Sade are determined to be immediately dispensable.) In the end, they haul out a cricket bat and a shovel from the garden shed and start beating the creatures over the head — over and over and over — in a shower of blood. This, it turns out, is the only way to … well, not kill them — dispatch them.

It’s shaping up to be a really bad day. Shaun is determined to drive over to his mother’s house and haul her away to safety at — the Winchester. What better place than a pub, after all, to wait out a zombie attack? What a bad idea.

The movie’s story line is worked out in intricately clever detail — it’s both hilarious and bracingly bloody. (The scenes of zombie guts-munching are straight out of the George Romero living-dead stylebook.) There are some actually scary moments, too, and there’s an ending that … well, let’s say you wouldn’t expect. But there’s really no point in my scavenging around in this wonderful picture to lift more riffs — I could never do them justice. Only you, the laugh-craving consumer, can do that. And really, I’d do it pretty soon.

“Ladder 49″: Hearts of Fire

“Ladder 49″ is a movie about brave men whose poorly paid job is to save people’s lives, and who draw strength for this from their families, their comrades and their Catholic faith — all of which are depicted without a hint of irony or a whisper of condescension. The picture is rich in sentiment, but never lapses into sentimentality. It’s an unusual film.

I didn’t expect much from this movie — it could have been a glibly well-intentioned but sappy Hollywood tribute to the heroic New York City firefighters of 9-11, maybe. But “Ladder 49″ is set in Baltimore, and it deals with men facing, not a single, unprecedented catastrophe, but rather a never-ending series of deadly conflagrations that flare up virtually every day. And any day might be the one in which they die a hideous death.

Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran fireman. We first see him leading a squad of his partners through the smoke-filled corridors of a burning building, pulling out victims and hustling them away to safety. Setting off by himself in search of other tenants, Jack takes a sudden, crashing fall from one floor down into a room below. As he’s lying on the ground in pain and fear, with flames eating their way toward him and rubble falling from above, we see a series of flashbacks that chronicle his career, beginning with his arrival at the firehouse years before as a rookie. We watch as he encounters the other men on the force who will become his closest friends, on whom he’ll rely for his own life as they rely on him for theirs; and we meet their leader, Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), a third-generation fireman who is totally dedicated to his job and to safeguarding the lives of his men — even though he knows that this is a mission in which he will sometimes fail.

“Ladder 49″ is a solid and straightforward job of filmmaking. There are no edgy effects or stylistic surprises, and some people might find it a little dull. But even though the picture doesn’t solicit emotional responses (there are no puppy rescues or cute, sooty infants), it does earn some. After watching the men horsing around in the firehouse like little kids — tossing a lit newspaper into an occupied bathroom stall, dumping tubs of water over unsuspecting buddies — we feel the loss more sharply when the roof of a burning building suddenly opens up and one of them goes screaming down into the flames. And we feel what their wives must feel, living in constant dread of the day when an official fire-department car will pull up in front of their home and the sad-eyed chief will climb out … followed by a priest.

Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta give reined-in performances here — there’s no star flash on display — and they’re skillfully supported, in the roles of fellow firefighters, by Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty and Morris Chestnut (who has an affecting scene in a burn ward). At the heart of the movie, though, is Jacinda Barrett, who evolves with complete believability over the course of 10 years from Jack’s frisky girlfriend (“I think it’s amazing what you guys do,” she burbles when they first meet, “running into burning buildings when everyone else is running out”) into a staunch wife and mother with a face that seems already haunted by whatever heartbreaking end her husband’s hazardous vocation might suddenly bring. He may not be a “hero” in the comic-book sense — who is? But he does heroic things, and he does them on a daily basis. He’s an everyday hero, and of course that’s the most heroic kind.

“I Heart Huckabees”: Masters of the Universe

Those who never made it to the part in Philosophy 101 where the airy Eastern worldview (we’re all interconnected; everything-is-everything; que sera, sera) faces off against a chillier European contention (life is meaningless, the world is cruel and the universe could care less) may experience the new David O. Russell film, “I Heart Huckabees,” as a spiritual event. More jaded viewers might likely pass the time squinting in the dark at their watches and waiting with fast-waning patience for this clunky, pretentious comedy to come to an end.

The story isn’t simply absurd — absurdity can be illuminating. The story is ridiculous. Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, an environmental activist of the sort who gives environmental activism a bad name. Albert is the leader of a little group called the Open Spaces Coalition, and he believes passionately that poetry is an important weapon in the battle against environmental depredation. Unfortunately, the poetry he’s passionate about is his own. (Perched atop a rock he’s just “saved” in a wooded marshland, he declaims, “You rock, rock!”) Albert has had three coincidental encounters around town with a tall black African man. But how “coincidental” were they, he wonders suspiciously. As it happens, he has discovered in the pocket of a borrowed jacket — coincidentally, again — the business card of a pair of “existential detectives,” Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). The Jaffes conduct investigations into the philosophical problems that plague their clients; and in tracking his every movement and eavesdropping on his every intimate moment, they soon discover that Albert’s most pressing vexation is actually Brad Stand (Jude Law), a rising young on-the-make executive in the headquarters of Huckabees, a chain of retail megastores. Huckabees’ plan to build its latest outlet on the wooded marshland is stirring up ugly publicity; Brad has decided to co-opt the Open Spaces Coalition and, in a PR coup, turn Huckabees into the marshland’s savior. Sort of.

To Albert, this insidious maneuver suggests that there is no justice in the world, and maybe no rhyme or reason to it. He is expecting the Jaffes to come up with a metaphysical explanation for such things, but when they take Brad on as one of their clients, too, Albert decides to start looking elsewhere. He is joined in this extended search by another of the Jaffes’ unsatisfied subjects, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), an ornery fireman. Together, they are taken up by another “existential detective” of a very different sort, a slinky Frenchwoman named Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). Caterine is a disaffected former student of the Jaffes. Where they are very much of the everything-is-everything school of metaphysical disquisition, she is pure cruel-universe. She is also, in Albert’s eyes, very hot. So is Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), Huckabees’ uber-perky blonde spokesmodel and Brad Stand’s girlfriend. And of course so is country-pop singer Shania Twain, who’s also involved in the story, although the less said about her presence, which is pointless, the better.

The central idea of “I Heart Huckabees” is concisely expressed by Mark Wahlberg’s character: “Why do people only ask deep questions when something bad happens?” This is a good question, and I’d say that more than the one implied answer — that most people are too dim to do so — suggests itself. It might be that most people are rather too busy living their lives to be able to devote large parts of them solely to philosophical noodling. (The under-employed Albert doesn’t appear to have this problem.) And there’s the related possibility that most people do in fact contemplate life’s pleasures, pains and paradoxes, in their own perhaps unsystematic ways, on a daily basis, in between walking the dog, feeding the kids and earning a living.

Since the characters in this movie function mainly as plot points and philosophical signposts, the talents of some very good actors are piddled away. Jude Law brings a brio to the part of Brad Stand that the character, as conceived, hardly merits. Naomi Watts, who’s also quite funny, is too smart an actress to really be able to dumb-down all the way in the role of Dawn. Isabelle Huppert, a glorious presence in so many fine French films, is rendered drab here; and Mark Wahlberg’s one-note bluster becomes wearing in fairly short order. Then there are Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, who play the Jaffes with a sort of embalmed whimsy. Hoffman spends the movie muttering obscurely beneath what looks like a graying Beatle wig; and the grimly inexpressive Tomlin appears to be wearing a plastic Lily Tomlin mask.

David O. Russell, who previously directed the startling anti-war film “Three Kings,” is a provocative filmmaker, and there are some striking visual touches here (like the twinkly moment when Dustin Hoffman’s features start floating off his face, and the quickly glimpsed sight of Lily Tomlin suddenly diving through an open car window in the background of a scene). But while the notion of “existential detectives” might seem a promising basis for a smart comedy, in “Huckabees,” it doesn’t begin to approach the level of playful intellectual engagement that so enlivens films like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It may be a cruel universe in which we all orbit, but it’s does it have to be this dumb?