[Metroactive Movies]

[ Movies Index | Show Times | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace]
Zombie Zest: Simon Pegg and Kate Ashfield star in the in the year's liveliest dead-shall-walk-again adventure.

Year of the Mutant

Get ready, baby: it's going to be a bumpy ride

By Hannah Strom-Martin

ONE DOESN'T usually go to a zombie movie expecting jaw-dropping character development, but in 2004 all entertainment bets were off. This was the year of the Mutant in film and novels—a cavalcade of shocking twists and surprise, genre-bending action that could have distracted from a third Bush election. The grand revolution promised by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 may not have materialized the way we had hoped, but while we were fretting over the rise of our own dark empire, a smaller, but nevertheless significant, revolution was happening under our very noses.

This was the year of Susannah Clarke, whose first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, single-handedly reinvented the way we perceive the fantasy genre by introducing poignant social commentary to the worlds of Tolkien and wizardry from the regency drawing rooms of Jane Austen.

This was the year of Stephen King, whose final trilogy of novels (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susanna and The Dark Tower) not only brought his Sergio-Leone-meets-The-Lord-of-the-Rings-Dark-Tower cycle to a close but also managed to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality by making King himself a character in his own mythology.

In a year of audacious moves, King's portrait of himself as a young writer—part God, part substance-abusing low-life (in Song of Susanna, his hell-bent, tower-seeking hero, Roland of Gilead, confronts the author in a whacked-out version of 1970s Maine, where the real-life King was living when he began to slip into a coke-fueled alcoholism)—leads the way to glory, done with just enough tongue-in-cheek humor and balls-to-the-wall honesty to cement the author's place in the storyteller pantheon.

What might have sunk in the hands of a less imaginative writer instead serves to illuminate what went right in 2004 as a group of daring, maverick storytellers combined genres, personal mythologies and gut-grabbing innovation to change the way we think about pop entertainment.

Walking into the British cinematic sleeper Shaun of the Dead, I expected a quick laugh. What I got was a film of deft social commentary of surprising feeling and—oh yeah!—flesh-eating zombies. Written by a couple of unknowns—Edgar Wright (who also directed) and Simon Pegg (who stars as the endearing Shaun)—the film chronicles the adventures of a blundering Everyman in a zombie-ridden London. He must somehow fix his crumbling relationship with his girlfriend, save his dear old mum and keep his circle of friends from being devoured by the encroaching dead and their own emotional conflicts. Billed as "A Romantic Comedy—With Zombies!" Shaun was set up to foil expectations, but I'd wager a tidy pound that no one witnessing this emotional character piece disguised as a gore extravaganza thought they would shed tears over the fate of the characters.

Imagine a world where horror films are emotionally compelling and funny—where good acting and well-drawn characters are no longer the hallmark of the "serious" film. Then see Shaun of the Dead and realize: anything is possible.

Shaun wasn't the only freakish cross-genre marriage to push the envelope of acceptable film convention. There ought to be a drinking game for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, with cues to glug each time another successfully perverted pop-culture motif is spotted. The story of one woman's quest for revenge, Bill has everything: grrl fights, samurai, assassins, anime, black humor, poignant drama, a climactic monologue about Superman, a soundtrack by Robert Rodriguez and an uncanny yen for rejuvenating the careers of everyone from '80s icon Daryl Hannah to kung fu legend David Carradine (whose sadistic-yet-heartbroken Bill deserves an Oscar). Vol. 1 sets up the story of the vengeful Bride (Uma Thurman) and boasts the bloodiest fight since Total Recall. Vol. 2 turns everything on its head, delving deep into the heart of its characters. What seems, at first, to merely be another exercise in Tarantino egomania and Japanese cinema-worship is an engaging examination of good and evil.

In a scene of stark beauty, the black-clad Bill and white-clad Bride face off before a church where the Bride is rehearsing her wedding to another man. Bill has come to kill her for deserting him. The Bride hopes against hope that he will forgive. Filmed without color or background music, the scene takes on the kind of mythic good guy/bad guy resonance Sam Raimi's Spidey sequel had to strain for.

We are entering a time where movies test the limits of expectation, where we are re-evaluating the acceptable length, creative process and angle used to tell stories. Not all the bugs are worked out yet, but those with patience are rewarded with a chance to view the birth of new ideas, to mull over new generic possibilities and to view the creations of experimental directors like Tarantino and Wright with active criticism—not passive absorption.

But a unique example of skewered expectations in 2004 came, appropriately enough, from a man known for his twist endings. Not everyone knew what to make of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village—a dark, primal piece of paranoia.

Centered around an isolated New England village whose elders have bargained with the mysterious Those We Don't Speak Of in order to preserve an idyllic way of life, Shyamalan's combination of period piece, Brothers Grimm and post-9/11 political angst is indeed scary—but not in a way that humors fans of The Grudge. Shyamalan's monsters play second fiddle to some truly scary human beings, his vision of a utopian society run by fear like some dark dream of the collective American unconscious.

By examining how human beings (not monsters) use fear to control one another, Shyamalan gives terror a new name and the audience a whole barrel of twists. He dispenses with his big-name actor/hero a quarter of the way through, sets up newcomer Bryce Dallas-Howard as an unlikely and compelling heroine, and still manages to make the audience jump even after they think they know what is going on.

Known for his supernatural yarns, Shyamalan strays miles from the territory of The Sixth Sense, playing up on the allegory and down on the beasties. He emerges as a serious director to be reckoned with—twisting not only what you expect from his movie, but what you expect from him as a director.

Of course, not everyone is ready for a nightmare period drama that cuts to the heart of our current political angst, or a feminist exploitation film that contains severed limbs and heartfelt acting. But in 2004, our storytellers refused to cater to the meek. From tearful showdowns with the living dead to aristocratic magicians with a hankering for Byron, 2004 raised the bar for experimentation in storytelling and painted its bloody, fearless message for everyone to see: Get ready, baby. The mutants are coming.


Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]


From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate