"Land of the Dead": Pass The Ketchup
The story so far: Gut-munching zombies first started becoming a bother back in 1968, when they rose from their graves and began staggering our way in director George A. Romero's no-budget, ultra-gore classic, "Night of the Living Dead." They came to a shopping mall near you in Romero's semi-comical 1978 follow-up, "Dawn of the Dead." And then, in 1985, they became a bore in the tiresome "Day of the Dead."
Now, in Romero's pretty swell "Land of the Dead," the zombies are starting to wise up. They're learning things — and I don't mean playing the piano or parsing Proust. They're learning how to use weapons. And they know just who to use them on — the not-undead-yet humans in their walled-in outposts scattered around the country. Boy, are these guys in for a surprise.
Leaving behind the coal mines of Pittsburgh for the spiffier and even cheaper environs of Ontario has been good for Romero's visuals; and working with real actors for a change helps a lot, too. Dennis Hopper plays Kaufman, a goatee'd sleaze in a three-piece suit who rules over the particular outpost under consideration here. Kaufman lives large in the penthouse of a heavily fortified high-rise apartment building that also houses all his rich friends. These people have luxury goods galore — fine wines, good cigars, snappy apparel — provided for them, at a price, by gangs of dispensable mercenaries living in squalid shanties on the fenced-in lots below.
The soldiers set out on regular foraging expeditions in a huge, garishly armored vehicle called, with rude humor, Dead Reckoning. Embarked on these forays, they wheel around from liquor store to tobacco shop to empty-aisled supermarket, pillaging whatever items are still usable. ("I'd stay away from the fish," one guy observes.) All along the way, of course, they're mowing down zombies right and left.
The story is pretty much a cowboys-and-Indians exercise in undead drag. One of the mercenaries, Riley (Simon Baker, of "The Ring 2"), wants to leave behind his squalid outpost life and relocate to Canada, which is apparently too dead for even zombies to inhabit. He may be taking along a tough, cute, gun-toting ex-hooker called Slack (Asia Argento, of "XXX"). But Riley's on-and-off friend, Cholo (John Leguizamo), has other plans: He suggests they take down Kaufman and move into the high-rise themselves. Need it be said that the hordes of disgusting, blood-caked zombies outside the live guys' fortress have plans of their own?
It has often been pointed out that zombies are a dubious movie threat — they're ridiculously slow. There's also the pertinent question of how to kill creatures who are already deceased. (Here, blowing their heads off seems to do the trick.) But "Land of the Dead" doesn't give you much downtime to ponder these matters. The story moves right along, heavily punctuated by barrages of gunfire, roaring explosions and of course lots and lots and lots of gut-munching zombie action.
Frankly, it's kind of nice to see people getting their faces chewed off again, and their various limbs gnawed right down to the bone. George Romero is back and, in this movie, he's better than ever. Give him a hand, folks. Well, maybe not ...
"Bewitched": Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
If we must have high-powered Hollywood riffs on long-gone TV series — and apparently we must — there are certainly dumber ways to go about it than the one chosen by director Nora Ephron for her clever big-screen inflation of "Bewitched," a wildly successful sit-com that ran on ABC for eight seasons beginning in 1964.
"Bewitched" made a national sweetheart of Elizabeth Montgomery in the role of Samantha Stephens, a bright young witch who's determined to lead a normal, magic-free life with her straight-arrow husband, Darrin, but is continually undermined by her disapproving mother, the uber-witchy Endora, and by such occasional characters as her epicene Uncle Arthur (played by early gay icon Paul Lynde). Faced with their disruptive antics, she is repeatedly forced to fall back on magic, which she invokes with an adorable twitch of her nose.
Ephron's strategy in dealing with this material is to leave "Bewitched" as it was — an old TV series — and to create around it a new story in which a fading movie actor named Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), now downgraded to doing television, is engaged in trying to create an updated version of the show. Ferrell's Wyatt is a hilarious, blustering dolt ("Make 20 cappuccinos and bring me the best one!" he barks at his long-suffering crew), and he's convinced that if the new "Bewitched" becomes a hit, it will propel him back into movies. To this end, he's had his writers re-tool the story to make Darrin the star and to give him all the good lines. It only remains to find some pliable young actress — one who's also able to replicate Elizabeth Montgomery's famous nose-wiggle — to fill the now-subsidiary role of Samantha.
After a number of auditions fail to yield such a person, Jack spots a perfect candidate in a bookshop one day, a young woman named Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). Isabel happens to be a real witch herself, and like Samantha, she too is trying to swear off magic. She's initially intrigued when Jack tells her that his new "Bewitched" will make her a star; but when he says that as a famous person, "You just snap your fingers and anything you want materializes," she recoils with a startled "Oh, no!"
She takes the role, though, and soon, with irritated applications of her magical powers, she takes over the show. Too late, Jack realizes he's made a terrible mistake — he's been turned into a marginal stooge on his own series. But then his relationship with Isabel takes a magical turn, and in the end — spoiler here — love conquers all.
The incomparable Nicole Kidman, who truly seems capable of playing any part, here reveals a dizzy facility for screwball farce, airily charming a jumble of cable-TV wires into installing themselves and pertly explaining to the un-magical Jack that "You have to have a permit for a poison apple." Her comic timing is a delight to behold, and she's clearly having a ball. Will Ferrell is pretty near perfect, too. (If he were any nearer, his windmilling physicality might unbalance the picture.) Ferrell completely inhabits the part of the cloddish, self-aggrandizing Jack. ("I want my own makeup team!" he bellows, in listing his leading-man demands. "With matching jumpsuits!") But even at his spluttering funniest, he manages to nudge his natural sweetness into the sort of believable romantic appeal required by the story.
Nora Ephron has proved herself a master of sleek romantic comedy with such films as "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998), and she delivers here, too. The movie is filled with funny situations and very funny lines, and its look is sunny and lustrous. (Maybe too much so: It verges on partaking of the over-lit sit-com blandness it seeks to gently satirize.) Fans of the original "Bewitched" might complain that her conception of Isabel is ditzier than Elizabeth Montgomery's in-control Samantha; but then it could be argued that she's not actually supposed to be that Samantha
The supporting players, however, are problematic. Michael Caine gives a charming, if inconsequential, performance as Isabel's womanizing warlock father, Nigel. (He's so solicitous of his daughter's welfare that he magically turns up everywhere to counsel her — in a supermarket scene, he peers out as the Jolly Green Giant from a can of peas she's perusing.) But Shirley MacLaine, as Iris, the actress hired for the role of Endora in the new series, plays a blowsy old broad too broadly. And the capable Steve Carell (from "The Daily Show" and the American version of "The Office") is given the thankless task of impersonating Paul Lynde — not just as a character in the movie's TV show, but in the Jack-and-Isabel story itself. It's a thudding creative miscalculation that just about junks the final part of the picture.
For the most part, though, "Bewitched" works. There's nothing subversive or edgy about it; like the recent "Fever Pitch," it's not trying to reinvent the rom-com form. But it's an agreeable piece of Hollywood product — a finely tuned machine. And when it's over, you climb out and close the door and walk away. It's a nice ride.
"March of the Penguins": Southern Exposure
In saying that "March of the Penguins" is the finest penguin documentary I've ever seen, I don't think it diminishes this extraordinary 80-minute French film to add that it's also the only penguin documentary I've ever seen. The picture stands on its own as an impressive piece of work.
Each year, at the end of the Antarctic summer, thousands of emperor penguins, impelled by an instinctual need to reproduce, turn away from the frigid waters by which they live and line up to begin an epic march — or epic waddle, really — to their inland breeding grounds, which can be as far as 70 miles away. Sometimes, to rest their feet, they will flop down onto their puffy bellies and push along in that fashion across the frozen and utterly inhospitable tundra. Temperatures can sink as low as 80 degrees below zero, and winds attain velocities of 100 miles per hour. Many birds will not survive the trip.
When the penguins finally reach the area where they themselves were once born, they pair off into monogamous couples and mate. As winter deepens, the shuffling birds, brutally whipped by wind and snow, huddle together for warmth and wait for the females to bring forth an egg. When this finally happens, after eight months, the females turn the eggs over to the males, who cradle them on the tops of their paddle-like feet and cover them with the overhang of their warm, feathered bellies. Then the females set off on a long march back to the sea to hunt for fish. Those who aren't killed there by such fast-swimming predators as leopard seals will re-group and march back again to relieve the male penguins, who will have been waiting for three foodless months for their return. Then the males embark on their own trek back to the fishing waters, and the females wait for their return.
When the penguin chicks are hatched, the colony bands together to protect them from sea hawks circling above. When the chicks grow strong enough to toddle about on their own, all of these temporary families break up, and the adults march off back to the sea, leaving the young birds to find their own way. They will probably never see their parents again.
This story has the elements — hardship, hazard, seemingly heroic determination — of a saga, and the filmmakers have not resisted the temptation to slather on a thick coat of anthropomorphic blather. They have added a voice-over narration (by Morgan Freeman, who must really love penguins — he can't need the check, can he?) that tells us the birds are "guided by some invisible compass within them," and that when a chick is lost to the elements, the mother's "loss is unbearable." (How does she bear it, then?) This syrupy guff is a disservice to the film, but maybe it plays well in other markets. France, I'm thinking.
It's a shame, though, because the picture itself is a small monument of documentary craft. It required 13 months for the filmmakers to shoot — 13 months in those same 80-below temperatures that the penguins were enduring — and the resulting 120 hours of film must have presented a daunting challenge in the editing room. The result is extraordinary. We watch in wonder as a long, snaking line of penguins wends its way through the snowy wastes; and later, in some marvelous underwater footage, we see them whipping through the depths in search of nourishing krill to take back to their young. We see their elegant black-capped heads and their feathery little chicks so close-up, we feel we could reach out and give them a hug of warming encouragement. It's a privileged view of these endearingly peculiar creatures.
The banality of the narrative is unfortunate. But "March of the Penguins" is worth seeing, and short enough not to be a chore. If you love these wobbly little birds as much as Morgan Freeman apparently does, you might want to check it out. I think it's safe to say that this could be the finest penguin documentary you'll ever have seen.
-- Kurt Loder
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