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Sunday, October 20

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Land of the Dead
Of all of the big franchise films coming out this summer, the one I have been the most anxious about (and I do mean anxious, as in "full of anxiety") is Land of the Dead. The event in my life that turned me from casual moviegoer to outright film obsessor was not seeing the first Star Wars film when I was a child. Oh no. It was viewing George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead for the first time at a theatre situated in a mall, no less. I walked out of that theatre contemplating the message of the movie, but also dying to find out how make-up wizard Tom Savini accomplished his gut-twisting feats of gore.

Over the years, gore films and Romero's works became my passion. Romero was and is a maverick director, and nearly every one of his films wears its message on its sleeve. His zombie films are clear evidence of this, whether tackling racism (Night of the Living Dead), the brain-numbing mall culture of America (Dawn of the Dead), or the thoughtless actions of the military (Day of the Dead). Part of my anxiety about the release of Land of the Dead was that Romero would be somehow forced to commercialize his work and remove the message.

In the last year or so, I've had the opportunity to meet, interview and spend a great deal of time with Romero, his wife, Chris, and various cast members from his films. By complete accident, I conducted the first interview with him after the word came down that Land of the Dead had been given the greenlight. Listening to the tape of that interview is a bit embarrassing because my excitement about the news could not be contained. For a year, my biggest fear was that I would be forced to give Land of the Dead a bad review. I'd been the first critic to review his last film, Bruiser, and I hated it. (I met Romero for the first time after that screening in 2000, and I could barely look him in the eyes because I knew I was about to crucify his movie.)

Adding to my anxiety was the fact that the stakes have recently been raised with zombie movies. In 28 Days Later (which, I know, isn't technically a zombie film) and the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, the ghouls are running. This is sacrilege to fans of Romero's slow-moving corpses. (Watch the loving Romero tribute Shaun of the Dead to see how the walking dead are supposed to walk.) My heart was pounding as I entered the theatre to see Land of the Dead, and I prayed Romero would make my review writing easy by simply knocking this one out of the park.

It took about 10 minutes for me to realize how much I was going to love Land of the Dead. Romero has moved on from race and the military to tackle The Class Wars. The scale and stakes of Land of the Dead are nothing less than biblical: do the meek really have what it takes to inherit what's left of the earth? The setting is the fictional island city of Fiddler's Green (which looks a lot like Pittsburgh, with its three rivers providing a natural defense against outside intruders). Even in a world overrun by zombies, financial superiority reigns supreme. The richest survivors in FG have taken up residence in a Trump Tower-like building at the city's center. They live an opulent lifestyle, still have servants, drink the finest wines and eat great food. The leader of this decadent group of elitists is Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). I'll confess, one of my biggest reservations going in was Hopper. The guy has been playing variations of the characters he created in Blue Velvet and Speed since those films came out, and his straight-to-video titles over the last 10 years haven't exactly topped my must-rent lists lately. But the man still has it in him to create a vacuous character who has forgotten that no amount of money can protect you from a zombie who wants to eat your flesh.

The rich folk rely on teams of paid mercenaries to drive fortified vehicles to neighboring towns for supplies. The risks are obvious, but they seem to have developed a system of distracting the zombies using fireworks while snatching up food, medicine and a few items for sale the black market. The leader of one of these teams is Riley (Simon Baker), with his second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo, clearly having the time of his life here). Riley is considered a marginal ally of those who live life in the shadow of Kaufman's high-rise. These are the people without money, power or influence. Kaufman has given them enough to stay interested in protecting his best interests, but not enough to enter the front door of his building.

As in Day of the Dead, Land begins with a recon mission that gives us a sense of how routine dealing with the zombies has become (and an idea of how great a job Greg Nicotero and his KNB crew have done with the rotting flesh makeup). But it's during this sequence that we meet the new wrinkle in the zombie threat. Again, expanding on the ideas first touched on in Day, Romero introduces us to "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), a muscular black man of a zombie who represents the most dangerous kind of undead, the kind who can think and communicate. He's no Einstein, but Big Daddy has figured out the tricks of the city dwellers and will exploit them to get to his next meal.

There's a distracting action-adventure plotline involving Cholo stealing the armored vehicle (named Dead Reckoning, a nice in-joke for anyone who's followed Romero's struggle to get this film made over the last few years) and Kaufman sending Riley to retrieve it. But this threadbare plot is simply a means to get the human and the inhuman together and let the blood and guts fly. If some of you are contemplating waiting to see this film on DVD (for the promised unrated version), you needn't worry about the film pulling any punches in the violence arena. The zombies' teeth are sharp and the biting is constant. Intestines are everywhere. Heads are ripped from bodies with shocking regularity. And it goes without saying that headshots are as common as breathing.

Also on hand to spice things up is blazingly sexy Asia Argento as a hooker (thank you, God) who joins the mercenaries to capture Cholo. Once the job is done, they all just want to drive up to Canada, where apparently all the zombies have come to their senses and departed to warmer climes. I wish there had been more for Argento to do in Land of the Dead, but just having her around makes the film a little better. Of all of the semi-famous actors in this movie, she's the one who deserves to be here.

As rewarding as it was to see the films George A. Romero made outside the Hollywood system, it's nice to see what he does with a little money. There are actual special effects in this movie, created by computers and everything. What's going on here? I'll tell you: Romero's status as a groundbreaking director of great horror is finally being recognized. Horror flicks, and in particular zombie films, are no longer a marginal product. These movies make money, and by giving us a film that both new and long-time fans of the genre can get behind, Romero and his team of gore-hounds have given us a worthy rallying point. They cover us in skull fragments and brain matter, and we leave the theatre smiling. As in The Shining, the elevator doors have opened and the tidal wave of blood is rushing toward us. It's about fucking time.


Me and You and Everyone We Know
In addition to being the year documentaries were actually considered mainstream entertainment, 2004 was also the year of the quirk. Films like Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State and even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined strange characters, bizarre humor and genuine emotion to give us some of the year's best movies. With this in mind, it's a bit shocking that we're six months into 2005 with no sign of such films…until now. Allow me to introduce you to Me and You and Everyone We Know, a work that is at times off-putting, but usually wonderfully charming and funny.

Welcome to the mind of writer-director Miranda July, making her debut feature with Me and You. The film follows several tightly connected characters as they weave in and out of each others' lives, sometimes doing more harm than good despite the best of intentions. John Hawkes (familiar to fans of HBO's "Deadwood" as the Jewish hardware store owner) plays department store shoe salesman Richard, a newly separated father of two boys who is attempting to make sense of his collapsed marriage while balancing work and family. In an opening scene, Richard sets his arm on fire to show off to his kids, mistakenly using lighter fluid instead of alcohol.

The leading lady of Me and You is Christine, played by July, a performance and video artist working on projects she hopes will get shown at the city's contemporary art gallery. To make money while she creates art, she runs her own taxi service, driving the elderly around town. Christine is a character who is often pathetic and adorable at the same time. Because her life is virtually empty outside of her art, she involves herself deeply in the lives of those to whom she gives rides. One day, while taking a client to buy new shoes, she meets Richard and, for no discernable reason, falls for him. Richard isn't the best-looking guy, and his fragile persona doesn't help make it any clearer why this attractive (albeit ill-dressed) woman would take a liking to him. Much of the film is devoted to their tumultuous attempts to begin a relationship. He's still reeling from his breakup, and she's just weird. It ain't pretty, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

The sections of Me and You that may bother some audience members involve the younger people in the film. Richard's shy oldest son (who's probably 14 or 15) gets in the middle of a contest between two teenage girls about whose oral sex technique is better. The two girls also have sometimes-uncomfortable dealings with an older man who leaves graphic notes in his window about things he'd like to see them do. Richard's youngest boy (about 6 years old) has utterly freaky (and poop-filled) instant message exchanges with a mystery person. While all of these situations sound a bit dicey, July never enters into Todd Solondz territory, and usually these scenarios end up being very funny. The entire film feels like it was shot on a razor's edge, and July never lets you get completely comfortable in your surroundings.

As with many of my favorite films, I had not a clue where this movie was headed. I was in no way certain that Richard and Christine would end up together; the film would have worked just as well either way. Early on, July establishes that anything is possible in Me and You, and that's a rare gift. There's a wonderfully written scene where Richard and Christine are walking down a sidewalk that they have decided will represent the rest of their lives together. It's a scene that almost guarantees a happy ending to the film. But when Christine jumps into Richard's car uninvited, he makes it very clear that her advances have gone far beyond where he is comfortable. The slap that sequence delivered to my face still stings.

All of the actors in Me and You are top-notch, but I have never seen a performance like July gives here. She is spinning around her own sun. When she is happy and excited, you are right there with her. But when she gets hurt, the look on her face so perfectly mirrors the feeling in her heart. I realize that this is supposed to be what actors do for a living, but I now realize that all other sad faces in movies have been fake. July's is the real deal. It's a disorienting yet extremely touching display of talent. Even if she never makes it as a director, July could easily carve out a nice career as a staple of romantic comedies…an opportunity she should reject on principle, since she could easily use her abilities to deliver a devastating dramatic read.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a small gem of a film that will probably take you a while to get accustomed to. It's odd, there's no getting around that. But the feeling it leaves you with is so worth the journey. And I can't remember a time when I felt so certain about the future of a filmmaker or actress as I do about Miranda July. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


Bewitched
Newsflash! Nicole Kidman isn't funny. In fact, she's so not funny, she makes Will Ferrell seem less funny. Now, imagine watching an entire film where Kidman neutralizes Ferrell's ability to make us laugh. Welcome to Bewitched.

I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Kidman as a top-notch dramatic actor. Few women do tortured, thoughtful characters better than her. But I've never really found her humorous or even charming in lighter fare. (See last year's The Stepford Wives for evidence of this.) Granted, it may not be Kidman who is killing Ferrell's funny bone. A limp script from the terrible twosome Nora and Delia Ephron probably had something to do with it. Nora Ephron has essentially built an entire career off a single screenplay (When Harry Me Sally…). Everything she has done since has been some variation of that influential work. I'm not taking anything away from her; that was a hugely influential film that changed the romantic-comedy genre forever (whether you want to admit it or not). But Bewitched is a tragedy.

The story isn't a bad one, almost worthy of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (in his hands, this might have been viable property). Rather than simply make a big screen version of the classic television series, the filmmakers decided to make film about famous actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell), who has agreed to star as Darren in the revived television version of "Bewitched." He wants to cast an unknown in the role of wife Samantha, because he wants to be the star of the retooled show. He spots real-life witch Isabel (Kidman) in a book store wiggling her nose exactly the way Elizabeth Montgomery did on the old show, and he wants her on the show.

It just so happens that Isabel had made the decision to give up the witchy life and try to live like a normal mortal. Her father (Michael Caine) tries to talk her out of this decision, but she's committed, with maybe a few exceptions to her no-witchcraft lifestyle. As the self-centered Jack and the clueless Isabel (stupid does not suit Kidman at all) begin to fall in love as they make the pilot for the show, she decides she needs to tell him the truth. Anyone who remembers the original pilot for "Bewitched" should remember this scenario well.

The cast of Bewitched is pretty great, and in another film, they would have rocked. Shirley MacLaine as Iris, the actress playing Samantha's mother Endora, is inspired casting, but she's given almost nothing to do but look and dress like Endora. Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman, David Alan Grier, Kristin Cheneweth and a couple of regulars from "The Daily Show" are all talented performers given sub-standard dialogue and grade-school jokes. The only guy who redeems himself is Ferrell's Anchorman co-star Steve Carell, doing his best Paul Lynde impersonation as the incarnation of "Bewitched" recurring character Uncle Arthur, who appears to Jack in a time of crisis.

No one works harder than Ferrell in trying to make Bewitched funny, but he's up against insurmountable forces. Everyone acts like idiots, behavior occurs with no motivation, and the jokes and site gags just don't work. I'm sure it will be a raging success this weekend. The one positive thing I'll say about the film as a whole is that it's safe to take your grandmother to see. I hope she slaps you for taking her to this crap.


Shake Hands with the Devil
There's really only one way to open a review of this remarkable documentary that has been at more than a dozen major film festivals since its premiere at Toronto last year. Remember Nick Nolte's Col. Oliver character in Hotel Rwanda? Director Peter Raymont's Shake Hands with the Devil is a profile of the man on which that sketchy character was based, Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian who led the miniscule United Nations peacekeeping forces sent to Rwanda in 1994. Although Dallaire's role in the war between the Hutu and Tutsi forces that led to the murder of nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days was often misconstrued and misrepresented at the time, Dallaire's book, Shake Hands with the Devil, told his side of the story. In recent years, his tireless attempts to stop the atrocities and to implore the U.N. to send more troops have become well-known and well-documented, and his status as a hero in his native Canada is undeniable.

Raymont's film follows Dallaire and his wife back to Rwanda 10 years, one autobiography and two suicide attempts after the genocide. Every stop on his journey is exquisitely painful, and there are times while watching this movie that you will want to avert your eyes because these moments seem too personal. You feel like an intruder at a funeral. Dallaire meets many Rwandans along his travels, each with stories of losing many family members during the atrocities. His speech before thousands at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the events is devastating. He apologizes not just for his own powerlessness during the nation's time of need but also the overt global racism that denied salvation to so many Rwandans.

Shake Hands with the Devil is as powerful a film as you are likely to see about a man facing an impossible situation, and the emotional destruction he suffers as he witnesses hell unfold on earth. Fingers are pointed at the likes of the French and Belgian governments, the United Nations, the United States and the Vatican, and rightfully so. Everyone but Dallaire dropped the ball, and the consequences are unforgivable. I don't like to call any film "important," but Shake Hands with the Devil is just that, and seeing it will change your moral outlook on how we are responsible for each other. Prepare to be shaken to your core. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Herbie: Fully Loaded
The best thing I can say about this sad attempt to resuscitate this long-dead Disney franchise is that it will probably be my final opportunity to drool a little bit over the curvy version of star Lindsey Lohan. Her costars here look either desperate (Michael Keaton) or should just know better (Matt Dillon, who, after doing his best work ever in Crash, should be ashamed of himself for stooping to this level). I realize that Lohan (who gave an admirable turn in Mean Girls last year) probably only made this film to say thanks to the Disney folks for giving her her big break as the star of the remakes of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday, but enough is enough. If she doesn't take on something with teeth in her next role, her career as an actress (although not as tabloid fodder) is over. Herbie is a fully loaded diaper.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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