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Issue Date:  October 15, 2004

The downtrodden and the undead

‘Diaries’ tracks an early Che Guevara, slackers fight zombies in ‘Shaun’


The Brazilian director Walter Salles, who scored so impressively with “Central Station,” should have an even bigger success with The Motorcycle Diaries, a deeply appealing story about Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s 8,000-kilometer trip through South America with his older buddy, Alberto Granado (Roderigo de la Serna). I have not read the accounts both men left of their adventure, but the movie largely captures the freewheeling spirit of two irreverently idealistic young men in search of their vocation. “Diaries” should prove popular simply for the appearance of the incredibly handsome Gael García Bernal as the asthmatic, 23-year-old, pre-“Che” medical student. It is also a compelling travelogue of the peoples and landscapes of South America, as photographer Eric Gautier shows us Valparaíso, Chile; Cuzco and Machu Picchu, Peru; and the endless expanse of the Amazon.

The relationship between Alberto and Ernesto is at the heart of the film, the lecherous, outgoing, 29-year-old biochemist paired with the withdrawn, always observant younger man who says he can’t dance. “Diaries” starts slowly, establishing the young men’s bourgeois backgrounds and stopping to visit Ernesto’s girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), whose wealthy parents disapprove of him. Chichina gives Ernesto a few dollars to buy her a bathing suit if he gets to Miami. The money later becomes a bone of contention between the two men when they are broke and Alberto wants Ernesto to spend it. This leisurely beginning pays off by giving the men time to discover the varieties of peoples and scenery along the way, allowing Ernesto to learn more about the injustices all around him. From the start the two men possess an instinctive idealism. Their ultimate destination is a Peruvian leper colony where they expect to help out for a brief period. Their chance encounters on the road, however, have a further impact: Seeing homeless peasants driven off the land and unemployed men at an Anaconda copper mine in Chile transforms a somewhat poetic idealism into a nascent revolutionary commitment. Unfortunately, Salles’ device of occasionally stopping for black-and-white stills of the oppressed seems overly didactic.

Nevertheless, the movie has enough humor to avoid becoming a political lecture, thanks to Alberto’s trash talk and the constant breakdowns of “the mighty one,” the ancient motorbike that provides transportation for the first half of the trip but finally has to be abandoned. “Diaries” salutes its hero’s humane responses to injustice but leaves audiences free to make their own decision regarding his later career.

The climax comes when the two men finally arrive at the San Pablo, Peru, leper colony, where Ernesto’s generous impulses grow even stronger. After being assured by the head doctor that contact with patients is not infectious, he refuses to wear gloves, though they are prescribed by the sister superior. On the other hand, his insistence on swimming the Amazon on his 24th birthday to be with the lepers seems self-dramatizing. “Diaries” is inevitably a buddy story and a road movie, but becomes something more in a party scene at the end where staff and nurses celebrate Alberto and Ernesto’s imminent departure. Everyone dances, Alberto finds a pretty young nun as a partner and Che gives the first political speech of his career, an impassioned plea for a mestizo culture and the unity of Latin America. With a Brazilian director and its chief actors as Mexicans and Argentineans, “The Motorcycle Diaries” itself provides lyrical support for such an ideal.

My qualifications for reviewing zombie movies are minimal since I usually avoid them, but advance word on the British satire Shaun of the Dead suggested that it might turn out to be a cult favorite, shown at midnight to adolescents of all ages. Directed by Edgar Wright and written by Wright and Simon Pegg, its assets include the amusingly low-key Pegg in the title role, a 29-year-old dimwit living in squalor with two other social misfits. Pegg knows how to get laughs out of his offhand ineptness. A clerk in an appliance store, he spends most of his leisure hours in the neighborhood pub, The Winchester. One Sunday after buying soda at a local shop, he looks around vacantly at the neighborhood disintegration around him; when a zombie puts out his hand, all he can say is, “Sorry, I haven’t got any change.”

But things quickly get out of hand. Zombies are everywhere and the television is spreading panic. Shaun and his oafish buddy Ed (Nick Frost) decide to ignore the announcer’s warning to stay in their house. They will try to rescue Shaun’s mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), by getting them to The Winchester. When they start out, whacking zombies with one’s cricket bat seems amusing, but by the time they’re in the pub worrying about doors and windows breaking down, we feel that everyone is trying too hard and it’s no longer fun.

It’s probably silly to complain of tastelessness in a zombie film; standards quickly collapse in its inevitable mayhem. By the end, the need to shoot Shaun’s constantly cheery mother as she starts to become a zombie has become less disconcerting than the fact that most of the extras used as zombies seem to be patterning their gestures on those of the retarded and deformed.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
Mr. 3000 is a lightweight but easy-to-like baseball comedy carried on the broad shoulders of Bernie Mac. As Stan Ross, the Milwaukee Brewers’ star slugger, he is obnoxiously arrogant, leaving his team in the midst of a pennant race because he has reached his individual goal of 3,000 hits. After retiring to enjoy the profits from his Mr. 3000 shopping center, he makes no effort to charm the children when he visits the local elementary school. Ross’ life is thrown off nine years later, however, when a statistician discovers an error -- the slugger has only 2,997 hits. So, although he’s 47 and out of shape, he returns to his team in search of the elusive three hits. Director Charles Stone III gets predictable fun out of the aging star’s problems in getting back in condition; his teammates leave a walker in front of his locker. A romantic subplot with Angela Bassett, a reporter covering his story, also contributes to Stan’s moral reeducation. Fortunately, “Mr. 3000” is baseball-smart, and Bernie Mac obviously has a feeling for the game. By the end we’re rooting for the hapless Brewers to finish in third place and glad that Stan has begun to learn a different set of values.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004

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