May 26, 2007

At World's End

The opening sequence of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End had me convinced that it would be the best one yet. It was a little strange and mysterious, but the pieces clicked together with an efficient precision. All of the characters we love pop back up again (well, except the one that died last film) It plays like the beginning of Return of the Jedi, only prettier, funnier, and more tightly edited.

And then we cut to Jack Sparrow. He was the best thing about the first two films, so it's incredibly disappointing that he's the lead weight that drags down this one. The film literally stalls as we find him trapped in Davey Jones's locker. The scene feels like it was ripped from another movie, dragging on forever with the focus entirely on the special effects at the exclusion of everything else. With the aid of ILM's incredible computer artists, director Gore Verbinski has spent millions to retread the same sort of cheap sight gags that bogged down the Superman sequels.

When our heroes do finally retrieve Jack and escape death's clutches, I thought for sure the film would pick up, but no. At World's End takes plot threads which were introduced with elegant simplicity in Dead Man's Chest and piled on subplots, twists and conspiracies until I stopped caring. Tom Hollander's Lord Beckett, a sniveling fool in the original film and a distant threat in the second, proves to be an overbearing presence here. He's not a character like Darth Vader that we love to hate. I just plain hated him — him and the way he bogged down characters I liked in treacheries I didn't care about. Allegiances flip flop and realign at such a dizzying speed that the script supervisor must have gotten whip lash. After each character changed allegiance at least twice, I stopped caring.

Despite a plot bogged down in unsatisfying revelations, the film certainly has qualities to admire. Verbinski and his team capture moments of true visual poetry, revealing dream-like events and transformations that put Terry Gilliam to shame. Except for one heavy-handed speech by Elizabeth Swann, the humour remains largely intact: for every sight gag that falls flat there's at least two that hit the mark. Swann and the heroic but previously bland Will Turner draw themselves are finally permitted to suffer humiliations in the vein of the ones Jack has become so known for. Will has at last crafted a credible pirate out of his pretty boy exterior. And Elizabeth, carefully wrapped in short silk Asian robes throughout, has never looked more stunning. Their final scenes together imbue what has been a rather static and perfunctory relationship with real depth and nuance.

The climactic battle might also be one of the greatest action action sequences ever shot. Each beat is perfectly realized, fantastically absurd and terribly dramatic. The duel between Jack and Davey Jones, in particular, is like Peter Pan on steroids. With a better build-up that hadn't sapped me of my energy and investment, I would have undoubtedly enjoyed it. Instead, I was wondering how long before it was over and I could go home.

There is no question that Jack, Elizabeth, Will and the crew will have a place among the greatest film characters of all time. Together, the three films are a thrilling reminder of how potent the adventure genre can be when unchained from the twin burdens of historical realism and cultural sensitivity. All the elements for a great film were here. The plot just wouldn't get out of the way. (**)

28 Weeks Later

28 Weeks Later is crafty enough at what it does. The problem is that what it does is not very much. Over its 99 minute running time — I left the theater shocked that was that long, so very little happened under such relentless pacing — we barely meet, much less understand any of the characters. Their journey is relatively brief, covering little geographic territory over a fair miniscule period of time.

The film begins around the time of the first film, in a house full of strangers totally boarded up against outside eyes. Owned by an elderly couple, the house has become a sanctuary for a handful of uninfected. We see things through the eyes of Don and Alice. We learn very little them — I had to look up their names afterward — except that they're married with children who are far away and safe from the outbreak. As the survivors sit down and prepare to eat, a young boy pounds on their door and is let in. His commotion alerts the infected to the presence of human life in the apparently abandoned country home, and Don is soon forced to choose between saving his wife and fleeing. He chooses the latter.

We jump forward a few months to 28 weeks after the initial outbreak. The infected, having exhausted their pool of victims, have long since died of starvation. American-led NATO troops have started cautiously repopulating London. Don's children are among the first British expatriates arriving for resettlement. Andy is precocious and shares his mother's mismatched Kate Bosworth-esque eyes. Tammy is an attractive, blond haired blue-eyed teenager, almost excessively British in speech and appearance. It should not spoil anyone's experience to know that the two children manage to circumvent the American military's carefully laid out restrictions, nor that an unforeseen element triggers a new outbreak of the virus.

We follow Andy and Tammy (their guilt-ridden father otherwise sidelined early on in the tale) with a group of survivors that is quickly whittled down to two AWOL members of the American military: Doyle, a sympathetic sniper that abandons his post after being ordered to target innocent civilians and Scarlet, a medical officer who believes the children might hold the key to developing a vaccine against the virus.

At no point on their journey do we learn much else about any of them; They are separated mainly by physical characteristics. Scarlet is a brunette so we can tell her apart from Tammy. Doyle is separated from Andy by his taller stature, shorter hair and ever prominent army fatigues.

Despite the lack of any satisfying narrative or character development, the film does have its strengths. The depiction of a perfectly preserved London more devastated than if it had been hit by an atomic bomb is more than a little unsettling. The film uses stillness and silence in a way that few horror movies have the time or patience for any more; very few of the scares rely on pounding bass or a sudden prelude of shrill strings. One scene in particular, in which infected and uninfected alike pour out of a breached containment zone as overwhelmed snipers try to pick off the former from within a fast-moving and panic-stricken crowd of the latter, captures a particularly gripping horror. I could not help but imagine what it'd be like on the ground as seemingly random bodies were torn to shreds by gunfire all around me.

Even with horrors like that, though, the scenario faced by our protagonists would still seem much better than the circumstances of the original outbreak. Instead of the millions of infected presumably roaming around during the original outbreak, these characters should only have to deal with the mere hundreds that had both returned to the country and survived the original slaughter. The film compensates for the lack of infected by making the American military the primary antagonist. Their all-out offensive to wipe out every molecule of the virus pins the survivors into tight corners where, with the exception of one scene brightly lit and out in the open, the infected attack in ones and twos.

The portrayal of the military is a convenient parallel to current world opinion. At the same time, the two soldiers guiding Andy and Tammy to safety are "be all you can be" personified: noble, selfless, and unerringly competent.

The lack of plot doesn't prove to be a big problem. Even the lack of anything engrossing or enlightening about these strangers' lives proves to be neither surprising nor fatal to the movie's objective. But it is disappointing that by the end, after hundreds have been infected and/or killed and a large section of London has been obliterated, so little within our microcosm has changed. The blonde daughter is still pretty to look at and the boy with the mismatched eyes is still creepily precocious. Not much changes from when they start running to when they stop, on either a micro nor macro level. The set pieces can be counted on one hand, and the creepy deathly perfectly preserved stillness has been replaced by a burned out, smoked out, bombed out wasteland. And finally, when all is said and done the film cheats us out of a proper third act with gimmicky horror movie ending that feels perfunctory rather than shocking. (**½)

May 08, 2007

In the Land of Women

In the Land of Women, written and directed by the son of famous writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, is a very specific movie made for a very specific sort of person. Though it is both romantic and a comedic, it never really develops into a romantic comedy. The characters examine the world more deeply than those around them, but are destined to be less satisfied with what they find in it. I surround myself with people like them and laugh at the things they find funny. Your mileage may vary.

Adam Brody plays Carter Webb, a twentysomething drifter who maintains his lifestyle scripting "premium softcore porn" in Los Angeles. A devastating break-up with Sofia Buñuel — a famous model-actress that is adored by seemingly everyone — inspires him to flee the city to watch over his flighty grandmother in suburban Michigan. Carter addresses the world with a leisurely calm; he lets events and revelations soak in at their own pace, reacting with shock or surprised only when absolutely warranted.

Otherwise, every interaction with grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis in Cloris Leachman territory) would consist entirely of shock and surprise. On the razor's edge between perfect clarity and total dementia, Phyllis has convinced herself that she is on the verge of death even though there is nothing medically wrong with her. The film doesn't treat her with any reverence. In mercilessly poking fun at all the baggage that comes with getting old, I was brought much closer to all of the old people I have known and loved over my twenty young years on this planet. Phyllis is old, and probably a bit crazy, but she isn't stupid or frail. She's survived long enough to be the toughest old broad of the bunch, and her insights — both shallow and profound — are informed by all her years of plodding on through.

It isn't until Carter meets the Meg Ryan's M.I.L.F. next door that he makes a real human connection. Sarah Hardwicke is also observes the world with patient ardour. But nearly two decades further along, her incredulity has evolved into a quiet desperation for a life not lived. Her marriage is antiseptic, and she hasn't known her eldest daughter in years. For her joy comes only in flashes between long stretches of living exactly as she is expected to. Sarah adores Carter for his passion and his future not yet lived. Carter adores Sarah for her insight and her bravery. Over walks with the dog and awkward trips to the supermarket, they delight in sharing their lives with someone who knows what to listen for.

In a daring rebuff of contemporary social mores, Carter meets Sarah's distant daughter Lucy over a cigarette. Kristen Stewart, whose career has largely languished in an awkward mix of horror movies and children's films since her promising introduction as Jodie Foster's androgynous daughter in Panic Room finally returns to work worthy of her talent. Though Lucy is smart, pretty and talented, Stewart embodies her with a constant clenched-up rigidity that gives her insecurities credibility. Filled with a devastating mix of shame and resentment, Lucy is so afraid of making her mother's mistakes that she's unable to live at all. As intense as Carter is mild, she obsesses over shallow high school dilemmas and life-altering crises with the same self-conscious eloquence. Lucy adores Carter because she senses that he is the kind of man her mother should have married. Carter adores Lucy because she could never become her mother.

Along for the ride is Paige, Lucy's preteen sister and the only uncomplicated source of joy in Sarah's world. She is as abnormally sane as Phyllis is crazy, as seemingly adult as Phyllis is child-like. Together, the oldest and youngest characters occupy the margins of the events with a startling directness. Both have big, real worries and address them with matter-of-fact sincerity.

As Carter and these four astounding women co-exist, important things happen and almost happen. Major events and minor ones. Some hilarious, some devastating, and others unsettlingly melancholy. All swell with an unspoken, uncalculated sort of love. When the film asks us to laugh at horrible things, they're the kind of undeniable truths that won't benefit from crying. These are witty, introspective characters who are too romantic and nakedly human to be anything but earnest. Those are the kind of people I'm drawn to, so the film spoke to me in a surprisingly personal way. If you don't resonate with what I've described, proceed with caution. (***½)