Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End(5/28/2007)

 

            Whoever came up with the idea of mixing Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Walt Disney Pictures must be very rich.  By mixing the kid-friendly colorful imagery and juvenile humor of a Disney film with the noise and violence of a Bruckheimer film has earned the franchise more than 1.7 billion dollars.  The mix worked in spite of itself the first time, and it still managed to be passable escapism the second time despite some major flaws.  However this new installment is proof that the series has indeed lost any steam it once had.

            The movie picks up from where the second installment of the series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, left off.  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been transported to a strange surreal purgatory land and the rest of the Pirates gang is trying to save him .  The first stop in their quest is Shanghi to meet with the pirate lord Captain Sao Feng to get charts they need to navigate the purgatory land Jack is trapped in.  Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) needs Jack’s boat to save his father, Elizabeth Swann needs Jack’s presence at a secret meeting of pirate lords to plan a defense against the oncoming East India Companies campaign against piracy, and Barbossa needs Jack’s boat in order to… uhh… wasn’t he a bad guy?  

            Many have complained that the plot is to complicated, this isn’t entirely true, the plot isn’t complicated it’s convoluted.  Deep down the plot is actually quite simple; the confusion is simply the result of messy screenwriting.  The screenwriting was just as messy as in the previous installments, but they had the advantage of not having heaps of junk storylines to build off of, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an original movie that started from nothing.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was not the first installment but it was able to start a separate original story.  Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End however has the unfavorable position of being a continuation of a movie that, despite its entertainment value, went nowhere fast.  This third installment also has the problem of being released less than a full year after the second movie, that’s less than a third of the amout of breathing room that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest had between itself and the original Pirates.

            Is the movie a mess? Yes.  But it also fails in a number of ways that the previous installments had moderate success at.  The real fun of the first two movies was in exploring this fantasy world and seeing new and interesting elements within it.  These new things were generally accompanied by very good production design.  The world of the first two installments was filled with elements of pirate-lore that had been Disney-fied by a very good design team.  However, it seems like they’ve run out of pirate-lore to adapt.  For example, its unclear what the name of the surreal purgatory Jack Sparrow?  At times its called simply: The Land of the Dead.  At other times its called Davy Jones’ Locker, which makes no sense as that name was already used as the name of the chest that contained Davy Jones’ (Bill Nighy) heart in the second movie.  The fact that they recycled this plot is emblematic of the problem here, this surreal purgatory was never part of pirate-lore and they didn’t have anything to name it.  Later in the movie the Calypso, originally a figure in Greek mythology, is introduced.  What did this mythological figure ever have to do with pirate lore?  Nothing, but they needed someone to create a whirlpool for the final battle.

            Besides a lapse of creativity, this film just doesn’t work as well.  Most of the jokes fall flat here.  There is way too much lame slapstick humor here.  The viewers also begin to predict visual jokes before they happen.  Many of the jokes here are performed by an almost supernaturally intelligent monkey and parrot; both of these annoying animals are the result of blatant pandering to young audience members.  Another group of characters that have been tacked on to pander to the least common denominator are the bumbling crew of the Black Pearl.  This Troupe of idiots is responsible for most of the aforementioned predictable slapstick.  The final battle is also a disappointment as what is built up to be a major battle between two large armadas descends into yet another battle between two ships, this time the two ships are descending into a whirlpool, but that does very little to change the dynamics of the battle.

            This is not to say the movie is devoid of positive qualities.  There is a conference between the pirate lords about two thirds in that is pretty fun, and not just because of the much anticipated Keith Richards cameo.  Chow Yun-Fat also adds a nice new element despite limited screen time.  The somber opening also adds a nice sense of menace behind the East India Company. The film also doesn’t drag nearly as much as a 167 minute movie with very little substance should. 

            These Pirates of the Caribbean movies are the film equivalent of cotton candy.  Like cotton candy, they completely lack substance, but you don’t mind because they are a very sweet treat.  But try eating three balls of cotton candy in a row, the second or third helping will stop being sweet and start making you sick.

*1/2 out of four

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Bug(5/25/2007)

            The term “psychological thriller” is tossed around pretty lightly in this post Silence of the Lambs world.  Most of these so called “psychological thrillers” are really just generic thrillers that have a detective lead (usually played by Sandra Bollock) and a serial killer screwing with that protagonist’s head for some unexplained reason.  The psychology is usually taken about as seriously as the archeology in the Indiana Jones films.  William Friedkin’s new film, Bug, is not one of these faux psychological thrillers.  The Psychology in Bug is complex and engrossing, unfortunately the “thriller” part of the equation doesn’t deliver as well as the “psychological” part.

            The film revolves around Agnes White (Ashley Judd) a woman worn down from years of bad experiences.  She’s has a cocaine habit that eats up any money she has, her abusive ex-husband torments her with prank phone calls, she lives in a cheap hotel room, and she’s tormented by memories of her kidnapped child.  After a night of partying with her lesbian girlfriend R.C. (Lynn Collins) she runs into Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a gulf war veteran who behaves oddly.  Both characters are isolated and alone to a certain extent.  Because they are both troubled outsiders, they form a romantic bond.  Evans, who has an interest in conspiracy theories, begins noticing small insects crawling around the apartment.  These bugs seem responsible for the rashes and sores that begin to emerge on the flesh of our two protagonists, what type of bugs these are less important to the story than where they came from.

            Bug has had a troubled journey to the screen.  When it was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 it received rave reviews from critics who called it a return to form for William Friedkin, director of such classics as The French Connection and The Exorcist.  Unfortunately Lionsgate continued to delay the film’s public release in order to find a good time to market it.  This wait seems futile now, as the film is inexplicably being released the same week as the Uber-Blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, a release date sure to destroy any chance the film had at a box office victory. 

            The film is written by Tracy Letts, and is an adaptation of Letts own off-Broadway play of the same name.  Because of its theatrical origins the film takes place almost entirely in one hotel room.  This theatrical limitation actually works in the film’s favor, the single room setup makes for a perfectly claustrophobic setting for this story.  The script is good but fragile, in the wrong hands it could completely fall apart; without excellent acting the script can’t sell itself.  Luckily the acting here is rock solid.  Michael Shannon reprises his role from the stage play, he clearly knows this material and has fine tuned his performance to near perfection.  Ashley Judd is also very impressive in her role.  The supporting actors are not as great as either of the leads, but they serve their roles effectively. 

            The movies first act is fairly slow, but this is deliberate, the film is building towards its final act.  Unfortunately the final act is a let down of sorts.  What happens to the lead characters is interesting, story wise it works, unfortunately the suspense and tension the film is obviously trying to achieve sort of falls flat.  Part of the problem is that it becomes readily apparent what the truth of this situation is, and as such a lot of the suspense is lost.  The final act is interesting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until chilling last five minutes, its like the characters progressed to a certain point, then stayed at that point for a very long time, this wouldn’t be a problem if this final part were effectively scary, or at least suspenseful.  Eventually one begins to wonder what payoff one was expecting from the slow first half. 

            Bug really is quality work, it has good dialogue, good acting, and it goes to an interesting place.  Unfortunately it can’t really work as a thriller and that is its undoing.  Still there is a lot to admire here.  The movie is worth seeing, it’s a very respectful effort, but ultimately its just as imbalanced as all the faux psychological thrillers that lack serious psychology.  It really makes one respect films that are able to effectively blend the two.

**1/2 out of four

28 Weeks Later…(5/11/2007)

The Exorcist II, Jaws 2, Blair Witch 2… Anyone else see a pattern here?  Horror sequels have a terrible track record.  Every time a new and interesting horror movie comes out it is usually followed by a lame, uninspired, cash-in sequel.  The few horror sequels that manage to work, like Dawn of the Dead and Aliens, only manage to work because they abandon their horror elements. 28 Weeks Later, sequel to the very well received 28 Days Later, would appear to fit right in with this trend.  Between the track record of horror sequels and the fact that none of the original film’s cast or crew are involved; it would be very reasonable to assume that 28 Weeks Later would be a disaster.  Amazingly, these assumptions are unfounded, 28 Weeks Later is one of the least disappointing sequels in recent memory.

            As I’ve established, a sequel to 28 Days Later seemed like a terrible idea, perhaps that’s why the sequel managed to work.  Most movies made today are already sold as a possible start to franchise, often leading to quickie follow ups the next year like The Hills Have Eyes 2.  28 Days Later however seemed like a very cohesive movie that ended in a way that seems to deliberately paint the series into a corner to prevent a sequel.  Because the sequel wasn’t a no-brainer it has been a full five years since the original hit theaters.  In that five years the people behind the sequel have had time to come up with a real, serious, follow-up that is worthy of its name.

            It’s been (you guessed it) 28 weeks since a plague swept over the world creating waves of rage infected humans (essentially fast zombies) in a typical zombie movie fashion.  Weeks takes a page from the Romero school of zombie-movie sequels.  It ignores all of the characters from the original film and depicts the plague from another unrelated group of survivors.  It appears that all the infected people from the original infestation have died off (no ore brains to eat).  NATO forces have moved in to reconstruct London.  The center area of London has been declared a “green-zone” that is free of disease.  Don (Robert Carlyle) has lost his wife during the plague.  He now runs a building in the green zone and has access to a number of other areas in the green zone.  Don has pulled some strings to have his children brought in despite some objections to allowing children into the area.  I’ll avoid giving away further details, but it goes without saying that the disease isn’t quite gone yet, if it was this wouldn’t be much of a horror movie.

            Like its predecessor, 28 Weeks Later is about more then frights and chills.  Days had a serious message about human behavior and the way men react to dire situations.  Weeks also comments on human behavior in tense situations, but from a more overtly political angle.  The mismanaged chaos of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina are obvious in the bleak apocalypse displayed here.  When the trouble starts the NATO reacts with more force then is really necessary, they become just as dangerous if not more dangerous to civilians then the rage infected zombies.  The soldiers however are not bloodthirsty zealots, they’re conflicted people doing the best they can in a mismanaged and chaotic situation. 

The director’s chair has been passed from the highly regarded British director Danny Boyle to the less well known Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.  The movie is no sellout however.  The camera work is as grainy and shaky as ever here.  The “shaky-cam” is one of the many visual tricks that are being experimented with recently.  Horror is one of the genres that seems to benefit greatly from the style.  Action movies don’t benefit from the style because its disorienting, but horror movies do benefit from the disorientation, nothing’s quite as scary as not understanding the situation you’re in and having nowhere to run. 

            The movie does have some problematic moments.  There’s an awkward helicopter scene that unfortunate mirrors a scene played for laughs in the Robert Rodriguez segment of the recent Grindhouse.  The army’s security in some key moments is also suspiciously weak, this could simply be a symptom of the mismanagement that is displayed elsewhere, but a scene explaining this would have been helpful.  One must also wonder why there are NATO forces available to rebuild London when it was suggested in the first film that the rest of the world was in just as much trouble as merry old England.  Additionally the movie is a little gorier then it really needs to be at times especially one stomach churning scene involving an eye gouge.

            Overall though 28 Weeks Later avoids the trend of crappy horror sequels, it works both as political allegory and as a horror movie.  It will have you on the edge of your seat from the claustrophobic opening, to the chaotic rage outbreak, to the Blair Witch-esque finale, to the chilling final shot.

 *** out of four

Spider-Man 3 (5/4/2007)

            The Green Goblin, main villain of the first movie in the Spider-Man series said to Spider-Man “The only thing they like to see more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying. In spite of everything you’ve done, eventually they will hate you…Why bother?”   This fall from grace occurs in Spider-Man 3, both in the story of Peter Parker and in fan reaction to the series.
              The original Spider-Man was an origin story; it was Peter Parker learning to be Spider-Man.  That first installment was hardly perfect; it was marred by many small problems that really added up.  The second film, Spider-Man 2, focused more on Peter Parker learning how to be Peter Parker as well as Spider-Man.  That second installment was light years ahead of the original, a near-perfect sequel.  The second film left Peter as a relatively well adjusted young man; there was really no where to go but down after the seminal second film for both Peter Parker and the series.  One must keep that in mind when looking at Spider-Man 3.
            The film opens with Peter Parker and Spider-Man at the height of their fame and happiness.  Peter is planning to ask Mary Jane to marry him and the public is really beginning to appreciate Spider-Man as a hero.  Thing quickly begin to fall apart for both hero and nerd.  Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane dissolves when he becomes to full of himself to notice her plight when she is fired from a Broadway role.  Spider-Man on the other hand is highly frustrated in his inability to defeat the Sandman, a nemesis who was reportedly the true murderer of Peter’s uncle Ben.  All the while Peter must deal with the new green Goblin; this time his former friend Harry Osbourne who is consumed with revenge because of his father’s death.  All this is too much challenge for even Spider-Man to deal with.  It seems that the solution literally falls from the sky in the form of an Alien symbiote called Venom which develops a more powerful black suit around Spider-Man’s costume.  But when the symbiote begins to negatively affect Peter’s behavior it becomes clear that this “solution” may be peter’s biggest problem of all.
            As most everyone predicted before the movie was even filming, Spider-Man 3 has one villain to many.  But it’s hard to pick one to cut out.  James Franco’s decent into becoming the new Green Goblin was built too heavily into the plot of the last to sequels to hold onto for another sequel, and he provides some of the movies best action sequences. Thomas Haden Church as The Sandman provides something the Goblin can’t, a nemesis that Spider-Man can’t defeat without the black suit.  The final villain may be a waste of a character, but he isn’t in the movie long enough really hurt it.  Raimi probably shouldn’t have set Harry Osbourne up to be the Goblin so soon, that’s the problem with this kind of foreshadowing; it can be bad if it isn’t perfectly planned.
            The human story is also problematic, Peter’s blindness to Mary Jane’s feelings is a bit unbelievable and Mary Jane is too quick to jump to conclusions about how Peter is behaving.  One reasonable conversation could probably solve most of their problems. It must be understood, however, that this is based on a comic book not an Emily Bronte novel; serious relationship insights isn’t what this medium is known for.  One must accept some of the weaknesses of the comic book medium being adopted along with the strengths when a medium is captured so faithfully on film.           
           The action scenes here are of the highest level.  The Spider-Man movies really have a monopoly on aerial hand-to-hand combat, there’s really no where else to go for this type of action.  The special effects are top notch, the spectacle elements alone are worth the price of admission.  The opening battle is probably the best, Peter Parker fights the new Green Goblin un-costumed in mid-air in stunning fashion.  This type of scene shows how much special effects have progressed since the original Spider-Man opened in 2002, this puts the fights against the original Goblin to shame.  The fights with the Sandman are also interesting; they’re like high speed fist fights with the T-1000.
            There are some definite script problems in Spider-Man 3.  The largest of these problems is an over-reliance on coincidence to further the story.  There is also a comedic turn in the movie that is mostly too successfully funny to really complain about, although this is taken just a little to far at one point.  There is also a problematic sub-plot in which Topher Grace blames Peter Parker for something that is really his own fault.
            Spider-Man 3 should really be judged for what it is, not what it could have been.  It doesn’t succeed as well as the second installment of the series or as well as better super-hero movies like Batman Begins.  It should also be given credit for being a lot better then lackluster superhero movies like X-Men 3 or Batman and Robin.  It is a lot better then the average summer blockbuster.  It has better action thrills, funnier intentional comedy, and less melodramatic romance.  It will probably be remembered the way The Return of the Jedi is, still liked but not up to the level of its predecessors.
*** out of four