Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stuff that makes the papers

With any luck, this will be my first entry off BostonNow, who invited me to a couple of meetings which were get-togethers with Boston's blogging community. At the second, I saw juts how tiny the space allocated to bloggers would be, especially me since all I do - bizarre serials aside - is review movies. We're talking a little one-inch square with a note to find more on their website. And I don't think I'll get that very often, since I'm not on any press lists, and thus only see films early enough to have a review up in time when I've seen a festival screening, a Brattle eye-opener or stumbled onto a word-of-mouth one. To top it all off, I seldom write full reviews of the big-name films I see because I can't give seven paragraphs to everything and feel I can be a little more useful to eFilmCritic by reviewing movies they have no reviews or just a few reviews for. Since they get me into festivals, I don't see any harm in being useful.

Maybe this week will be a good one for being able to get into the paper; I saw Knocked Up at the beginning of May and Severance back in October at the BFFF. Not that much will change if it does, but I'm sure I'll look more successful with my name on some dead trees.

Knocked Up

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (Preview)

Before The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow was probably best known as the creator of two TV series much-beloved by those who saw them (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared). These were not envelope-pushing shows, in fact leaning far more toward the sentimental than the outrageous. This is arguably why Virgin and Knocked Up are so good - network television demands the creation of characters you want to be around, and that's a skill he carries over to his R-rated comedies.

Getting to like Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is easy - she's beautiful, friendly, patient, helpful and humble. She lives in her sister Debbie's guest house, works behind the scenes at the E! cable channel, and she and Debbie (Leslie Mann) go out to celebrate when Alison is told they want her on camera. It's there that she meets Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a good natured stoner-slacker who shares a house with similarly-inclined friends, who vaguely intend to start a website where people can look up when a given actress appears naked in movies. Their drunken one-night stand leads to the title condition, and over the next nine months they try to figure out what kind of family they will become. Making it a frightening prospect is that their model - Debbie, her husband Pete (Paul Rudd), and their two kids - is falling apart before their eyes.

One of the things that makes Knocked Up more interesting than the typical romantic comedy is that it sets up a situation where it might not wind up a romantic comedy. The morning-after conversation that Alison and Ben have doesn't just make them appear different while illustrating actual unexpected chemistry; it demonstrates in no uncertain terms how Ben is not good enough for Alison, and isn't really motivated to improve himself. As much as he likes her and she likes him, our expectations and desires, along with Alison's, are a little more modest: Just let Ben get it together enough to be helpful during the pregnancy and a good weekend dad after.

Full review at EFC (or at least, it will be once the embargo period is over).

Spider-Man 3

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

Disappointing sequels come in threes, or at least "Part IIIs", this summer. Spider-Man 3 is the best of this May's three third installments, but it's also the most disappointing, since I expect more from Sam Raimi and since it has the best predecessors. The irony is that what got Raimi a lot of praise for his first Spider-movie - a story that focuses solidly on Peter Parker as a character rather than empty spectacle - is this movie's biggest weakness; there sometimes seemed to be too much story and not enough fighting supervillains.

What's frustrating is that there are plenty of bits that are really good ideas. Sam and Ivan Raimi and Spider-Man 2 writer Alvin Sargent have distilled the Venom/Black Costume story down to its essence, and hooked it to a well-meaning story of forgiveness. He actually shows us an upbeat, happy Mary Jane for a while. And I half-suspect that it won't be his last outing with the character, as has been widely reported, because he kind of has to do more with Bryce Dallas Howard, James Cromwell, and Dylan Baker as Gwen Stacy, her father, and Professor Curt Connors.

Also: Bruce Campbell with a French accent is hilarious. Why that guy never caught on in the mainstream, I don't know.

Shrek the Third

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2007 at AMC Boston Common #8 (First-run) (Digital)

The third Shrek, though, is just sort of lifeless. I think part of the trouble is that, by the third movie, we know and like Shrek, Donkey, and company too much, and having them be rude or crude in a fairy tale setting is no longer surprising enough to be really funny. I suspect that they've been toned down a little as well, since they're now highly merchandised franchise material. Cameron Diaz's Fiona certainly has. Rupert Everett's Prince Charming, alas, is still not nearly as amusing a villain as John Malkovich's Faarquad.

What is unexpected, and thus kind of funny, is King Arthur as a whiny high school kid, especially the moment when he's told that he's the next king and basically tells the rest of the kids to suck it - even if the whole high school thing is yet another "just like contemporary America... only in another time period!" deal. And I think I would have really enjoyed more of the princesses, especially the catty, bitchy Snow White; the fairy tale princess seems like a nice, ripe target for satire, and this movie wasn't quite mean enough for long enough.

28 Weeks Later

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (First-run)

Wow, has it really been five-plus years since both the original 28 Days Later and the only other feature by the sequel's director, Juan Carlos Fresndillo? Hard to believe, and I didn't even realize this was from the maker of Intacto until the topic came up during the Brattle's Grindhouse Panel. That at least gives 28 Weeks Later a nice pedigree, and it's got a good cast, too - I'm always up to see Rose Byrne in something, for instance.

It's a pretty good horror movie. Like most horror sequels, it's basically a repetition of its predecessor - escape from fast-moving zombies, only to find that the military is arguably the bigger threat. It's a slicker, more tech-savvy take on the idea, and the central character conflict is solid: A family ripped apart by distrust, and the rage-infected father being the biggest recurring threat to fleeing kids. It makes the U.S. military look a little stupid and a little vicious, while Days just had the soldiers as desperate. But overall, it works pretty well.

One thing I'd have loved to see them play with - and if by some extraordinary unlikely sequence of events, I got to write 28 Months Later, I certainly would tackle it - is the idea that an entire G-7 nation has basically been wiped out, and now all that property has passed into the hands of a group of expatriots and people who happened to be on vacation. And, heck, I don't think it's ever been mentioned what happened to the royal family. There's got to be an interesting story to be built out of that set of circumstances.

Black Book (Zwartboek)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2007 at Arlington Capitol #1 (Second-run)

Paul Verhoven is ruthless. This has always been the case, of course, but it's intriguing to me that at an age when many would be retiring, or perhaps becoming overcome by sentiment, Verhoven has gone and made a provocative picture about a subject that many talented directors would be content to present simply. There have been many films about the resistance during World War II, but few where the Nazi commander can come out looking pretty good.

It's a testament to Verhoven's skill that this statement doesn't seem ridiculous. The resistance is such a morally gray place, and one where the treatment of Jews like Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is given short shrift compared to that of the Christian Dutch, that it's no wonder she starts to feel something for the SS commander she's assigned to spy on, intimately if necessary: He, at least, seldom lies to her or treats her like she's not wanted. Fortunately, he's got a far more repugnant colleague and seems willing to negotiate, but it's a really fantastic depiction of just how much up can become down and vice versa in the espionage world.

Verhoven also delivers the brutal action that's to be expected, based upon his work in America, sometimes crossing the line between being unflinching and just excessive: On the one hand, I think a scene where Rachel has a gigantic vat of excrement poured on her is too much, but it's also an act of degradation that is hard to rationalize away, and something that egregious might be necessary, since a two-hour movie can't quite communicate the constant, long-term pressure that the character is under. Verhoven also does a fantastic job of subverting expectations based on genre conventions; I've got to agree with what fellow EFC writer Peter Sobczynski wrote in his review: As much as telling the story in flashback initially looks like it may destroy suspense, it winds up serving as a nastily ironic comment on the genre and history. Good show.

Pirates of the Caribean: At World's End

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

To give Pirates 3 its due, it's at least a letdown in the way that Spider-Man 3 is, as opposed to Shrek 3: It has ambitions and wild ideas that get away from it. As with the Raimis, Jerry Bruckheimer's team of Gore Verbinski, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have a story they want to tell, and if they make a bit of a hash of it, at least they're not just filling time because these movies make their corporate masters a lot of money like the Shrek guys.

They do, however, fall victim to one of the problems with Shrek 3, big-time: They've made their characters too cuddly. It's not just Johnny Depp's flamboyant, foppish Jack Sparrow - good luck finding a pirate in this movie who truly comes off as a bad guy. In the first movie, Geoffery Rush's Captain Barbossa was a monster, literally - a betraying, murdering thief who turned into a skeleton in the moonlight. Resurrected here for no better reason than being a popular character, he's not quite comic relief, but he's certainly less than he was. Bill Nighy's Davy Jones has been given a tragic backstory as well, and Chow Yun-fat's character (whom we don't see nearly enough of) quickly displays nobility. All we're left with for a villain is a bland seventeenth-century corporate stooge who apparently has the British Navy at his beck and call. I'm not exactly convinced that surrounded by murderers, rapists, and thieves, the British East India Tea Company is the best we could do for bad guys.

That is hardly the only bad decision that Elliot & Rossio (two of my favorites) make; in fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a single minute of this long movie that really made sense. And I don't mean that it was difficult to tell what was going on; just that at no point did it ever seem like anyone made well-motivated decisions. All the excitement and danger of the supernatural present in the first has been drained away as such things as ghosts and resurrections become commonplace, and the idea of giving Sparrow imaginary friends to talk to gets annoying fast. It also smacks of trying too hard to please ("if one Johnny Depp is fun, three will just be awesome!"). And as much as I loved Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in this movie, I can't help but notice that she rather falls up the ranks as it goes on, as opposed to climbing.

Credit for trying rather than coasting, though. At least I felt like the people involved were trying to entertain me, rather than just take my money.

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