May 31, 2007

Movie Review: Waitress

Posted in Movies at 11:49 pm by Calico Jack

There’s a fine line between sweet and syrupy, between dramatic and melodramatic. Many films try for one or the other and fail miserably; fewer still attempt both. It’s simply too hard to capture opposite ends of the emotional spectrum without coming across as cloying or heavy-handed. Waitress, the final film from writer-director Adrienne Kelly (murdered in her apartment last November) wants to have its cake — well, pie — and eat it too; but it succeeds admirably in almost every regard, especially with the inspired casting of Keri Russell as a quirky woman searching for happiness but unable to take the steps necessary to break free of her Southern small-town chains.

Russell sparkles as Jenna, a waitress in a roadside pie diner who, while not serving grumpy clients and dealing with an overbearing cook, spends her time concocting new pie recipes, each based on Jenna’s mood at the time. With wonderfully whimsical titles like “I Hate My Husband Pie,” Jenna’s treats are the toast of the town — to everyone except her insensitive lout of a husband, that is. Earl, played with smarmy idiocy by Jeremy Sisto, is a classic example of an abusive spouse: he refuses to let Jenna keep any of her earnings, claiming that as long as she has clothes on her back and a roof over her head, what need has she for money? Even when Jenna asks to enter a statewide pie contest, with a grand prize of $25,000, Earl flatly turns her down: her pies are decent, he tells her, but not worthy of any special recognition.

Complicating Jenna’s already troubled life is the discovery that she’s pregnant, due to an ill-advised drunken encounter with her husband six weeks prior. Her coworkers, sassy Becky (Cheryl Hines) and insecure Dawn (Adrienne Shelly herself) are rather supportive, but Jenna can’t quite muster enough courage to tell her husband the not-so-good news. For her, a pregnancy is merely an obstacle in the way of her dreams of leaving her controlling husband and opening up her own pie diner. A trip to the local OB/GYN confirms that yes, a baby is on its way; but handsome Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), newly arrived to take over the practice from Jenna’s retired gynecologist, provides some much-needed distraction from her rather sad, constrictive life. Even so, her latest creations have such titles as “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” and “Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie,” giving some indication as to Jenna’s emotional state — as well as her gift for self-deprecation. Innocent visits with the doctor quickly turn into something more, and soon two unhappily married people are caught up in a passionate affair. But the baby’s still coming, Earl is as alternately needy and obsessive as ever, and Dr. Pomatter keeps urging her to leave her husband — although he still wears a ring on his finger.

It takes quite a bit of finesse to get the audience to sympathize with two characters who are cheating on their spouses, no matter how difficult their home lives may be. But Russell makes Jenna so likable, so warm-hearted, and Earl is such an abusive husband that the distasteful affair becomes a bit more palatable, if not exactly excusable. Fillion is charming in that awkward nice-guy sort of way, and never comes across as anything other than a truly caring person who wants nothing more than to see Jenna happy. And Jenna herself is spunky and courageous: she’s afraid that she won’t be a good mother, and she can’t stand the father of her unborn child, but the thought of getting an abortion never once crosses her mind. “I respect this little baby’s right to thrive,” she tells a friend. And a post-birth scene brings that statement home in a powerful way, as Jenna’s first viewing of her baby overwhelms her with love and awe.

The one flaw that Waitress has lies with Dr. Pomatter: it’s never clearly stated why his home life is so miserable that he feels the need to plunge headlong into an affair with a pregnant, married woman. In fact, all signs point to his rather idyllic existence as a small-town doctor. Nonetheless, this is a minor quibble considering how deftly Shelly handles everything else. Special mention must be given to Andy Griffith, having the time of his life playing Old Joe, the owner of the pie diner and a cantankerous customer who might just have a bit of wisdom to offer Jenna along the way.

Waitress is a darling little film tinged with both genuine humor and sadness. It strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy, and never loses sight of its message: that happiness comes not just through love, but also through sacrifice. Russell might very well be an early favorite for a Best Actress nomination, and Nathan Fillion should be on everyone’s list of up-and-coming stars after this performance. Waitress is playing in limited release, but make an effort to catch this one before it leaves theaters. There hasn’t been a more uplifting film released all year.


May 30, 2007

I’m Out of a Job

Posted in Movies at 11:27 am by Calico Jack

In lieu of a Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End review last week (busy Memorial Day weekend, not enough time), here is an excellent review of the film from Ryland Walker Knight at the House Next Door blog which matches my thoughts exactly — and does so in far more detail than I can afford to give. It’s probably the best review of this film that I’ve read, and it strikes at the heart of why so many critics dismiss the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy as disjointed, bloated nonsense:

The Caribbean world of Verbinski’s trilogy is, after the first film, one of constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic. Of course, this Caribbean world is not the world we live in. In our world, there are no giant mythological squids or sea goddesses, but there are, however, pirates — and daily acts of piracy. And there are social dictums, social pacts, that we appropriate and reconstitute on an individual basis, to live with ourselves, to live with the world. The main thrust of this trilogy is that reckoning: How will we live in the world when our autonomous freedom is continually challenged?

Read the review in its entirety. Summer popcorn films, even the slapdash whiz-bang ones, can — and should — be treated on the same level as more “serious” films. But while it might wrong to hold all movies to the same objective standard, id est, Art with a Message; searching for something deeper within a glossy megablockbuster is a worthwhile goal. And Knight nails this one.

May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Posted in Personal at 6:59 pm by Calico Jack

Nothing more needs to be said.

May 25, 2007

Reflections from a Second-Generation Star Wars Fan

Posted in Movies, Personal at 10:04 pm by Calico Jack

Note: This post is a contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars Blog-a-Thon, in celebration of Star Wars’ 30th anniversary today.

I think that there are three different generations of Star Wars fans: those who saw the original trilogy in theaters, those whose first exposure to the saga were with the prequels, and those in-between — too young to have watched A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi on the big screen, yet too old to view Lucas’s later trilogy with the unrestrained enthusiasm that can only come from experiencing something completely novel.

Unfortunately, I was born several years after Return of the Jedi brought an end to the Star Wars trilogy in 1983, after the furor over Lucas’s pop-culture icons had died down and his one-time comment that he had three trilogies planned brought only a wistful smile to many faces. Yet the earliest recollection of my childhood is from 1989 when I was three years old, sitting in the shopping cart at Price Club (a precursor to Costco). My mom pointed to a pallet of videocassettes and asked, “Daddy really likes these movies. Do you want to get him these for Father’s Day?”

These movies, of course, were the Star Wars trilogy just released on VHS for all of America to enjoy. I had no clue what my mom was talking about, but I enthusiastically nodded agreement and put them in the cart. The next memory I have is several weeks later, after my dad had opened up his Father’s Day gifts. He wanted to watch A New Hope with me, but my mom was unsure; she thought I might be too young for some of the more intense scenes. But my dad promised he would cover my eyes if I got scared; and from the moment Tantive IV roared across the top of the screen with the colossal Star Destroyer Devastator following closely behind, I was hooked. I vividly remember watching the Rebel troopers lining the corridor of Tantive IV, blasters drawn and apprehensive looks on their faces. I didn’t quite understand what was happening, but I knew something exciting was about to occur (immense thanks must go to John Williams for his masterful soundtrack; even at three I could follow the story far better than I normally would due to his tonal cues and character themes). And when Darth Vader himself appeared through the airlock, labored breathing pouring through the speakers and an undeniable sense of dread filling every frame, I could scarcely breathe. Here was a villain (and he had to be a bad guy; he was wearing a face mask, wasn’t he?) whose presence was unlike anything I’d seen before. Although, to be fair I was only three — but it left a huge impression on my young psyche.

The rest of that first Star Wars experience is a blur, but not as a result of boredom. Rather, those beginning scenes completely enthralled me, and I could barely focus on the rest of the film because I was so excited to see this movie. When it was over, I’m pretty sure I was suffering from the effects of a sugarless sugar rush. And there were two more movies to go! We watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi the following two Sundays, and when the trilogy was over I knew that this was something I would enjoy over and over again.

My younger brothers followed much the same path; by the time each of us were three or four we had all experienced this sense of wonder that came with a first viewing. The early ’90s weren’t a great time to be a kid at the movies; in fact, there was quite a dearth of films that could stimulate a young boy’s imagination, let alone set it on fire like the Star Wars trilogy could. My brothers and I watched those movies every time we had an opportunity, eventually reciting iconic phrases along with the characters like “She’ll hold together. Hear me baby, hold together” or “You’re wrong, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Our love for the films never wavered, but there wasn’t always an opportunity to express it like we wanted to — by playing with Star Wars toys. They were pretty much impossible to find in stores: even as another generation was being introduced to these movies, the ability to truly become our favorite Star Wars characters through playacting was almost nonexistent.

Then Hasbro released a brand-new line of action figures and MicroMachines playsets in 1995. Finally, here was an outlet for us to make our own stories in the Star Wars universe. My brothers and I snatched up every action figure we could, and staged epic battles on the back patio between armies with dozens of figures each. All of us had our own favorites, of course; I was partial to the Rebel pilot figures and the bounty hunters, while my brothers preferred the Han Solos, Chewbaccas, and stormtroopers of the line. Over time, we became familiar with our local Target and Toys ‘R Us’s restocking dates, and often showed up at eight in the morning with our allowance money tucked safely away in pockets, waiting for the latest shipment of new figures to be put out on shelves. There was a constant battle between those of us who actually opened up our figures and played with them, and the collectors and scalpers who wanted them only for their potential profit. Often we would arrive at a store thirty seconds after a new box of figures had been opened, and only a few (not-as-cool) ones would be left sitting on the pegs. But after weeks and months of diligent searching, we would finally strike gold: there would be a few Jedi Knight Lukes or Removable Helmet Vaders waiting for us to claim them as our own. Was it all a bit obsessive? Perhaps. But we experienced both the thrill of the hunt and the rewards that followed (i.e., bigger and cooler battles) after stumbling upon that ever-so-elusive figure. It taught both patience and persistence, important life lessons for kids who weren’t even teenagers yet.

Along with the toys came a resurgence of interest in the Star Wars films, especially after the announcement that Lucas would finally be making the long-awaited prequel trilogy. That confirmation sent shock waves through the entire Star Wars community, and barely anyone could stop talking about what might happen. For my brothers and me, this was what we had been waiting for: the chance to experience brand-new Star Wars movies for ourselves. No longer would we be latecomers to the party. We would be witnessing the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and for the first time in our lives not know what was going to happen next, not have the minutiae of these films endlessly discussed and debated until nary an original thought could be found.

Apart from collecting action figures, the biggest Star Wars thrill that we could receive in the years leading up to the prequels was the arrival of the latest issue of the Star Wars Insider in the mail. That magazine was always full of Episode 1 updates, from conversations with producer Rick McCallum about characters and storylines to exclusive set photos and prop displays. Even a picture of background Jawas could send us into a frenzy, scrutinizing extras dressed in funny costumes and wondering what these characters added to the story. For several years, Episode 1 was a puzzle to unravel; and the biggest pieces came from the Insider.

The Special Editions arrived in early 1997 (in fact, A New Hope premiered on my birthday), and we eagerly trekked traveled to the theaters to see what changes Lucas had made to our beloved films. For the most part we were extremely happy, although I’ll always be sad to see the “Yub-Yub” song go from Return of the Jedi. And while it was awesome to finally see our favorite films on the big screen, it wasn’t the same experience for us as it was for those who were sitting in the theaters on May 25, 1977 — not knowing what they were about to witness. Our best bet lay in the upcoming movies.

When the trailer for Episode I premiered in late 1998 (the official title hadn’t been announced yet), we were ready. TV stations all over the country jumped at the chance to show the trailer during their news segments, and we managed to videotape it for permanent viewing. Here was a piece of brand-new Star Wars footage, and it had so much to analyze and dissect. What were those funny-looking creatures coming out of the fog? Did the queen live on that Italian-looking planet? Yoda! And — stunned silence — a painted Sith with horns and a double-bladed lightsaber? Whoa!

After what felt like decades of waiting but was only years, May 1999 arrived with the thunderous boom of universal hype. We were determined to be a large part of that experience; and together with our friends we planned a Star Wars night to remember — first waiting seven hours in line to purchase tickets a week before the premiere, then camping outside of the theater for its midnight showing of The Phantom Menace (something we repeated for both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). We brought Star Wars Trivial Pursuit to play with our friends; by that time we were so intimately familiar with the films that the Trivial Pursuit game became a one-turn win for us. Whoever scored the highest number on the electronic R2-D2 went first, and ten or fifteen minutes later collected all of the pie pieces necessary to win without giving anyone else the chance to take a turn. But it was always fun for us to spring the game on some unsuspecting adults; after all, who would suspect that a nine- or eleven- or thirteen-year-old could correctly answer every single question on the cards? Even if one did consider himself a fan, it was doubtful he could name every single alien in the Cantina scene from A New Hope, list a Star Destroyer’s complement of weapons, or be able to recreate the entire Endor battle scene from memory — with dialogue and accurate ship movements. We were big Star Wars freaks, but that carried a lot of clout in certain circles.

Once The Phantom Menace finished playing, I remember having a distinct sense of disappointment that the total was less than the sum of its parts. We had eagerly gobbled down every single tidbit we could find on the making of this film, yet the story, once shown, seemed so bland — even banal. Trade disputes? A queen’s wooden acting? The coolest-looking villain in ages getting killed off before the end of the film? And we won’t even mention Jar-Jar. Sure, there were some cool scenes, like the Podrace or the Duel of the Fates; but on the whole, Episode I was a huge letdown from all of the excitement that had preceded its arrival. The next day I watched the videotaped trailer for The Phantom Menace (now starting to wear through constant replaying), and could hardly believe that the movie I had seen in the theaters not twelve hours earlier was the same film depicted on my television screen. Perhaps I overreacted a bit too harshly, since it was impossible to recapture that sense of mystery and awe that came before watching the film and having every question answered in two hours. Yet no matter how I tried to look at it, the original trilogy was far better in every aspect.

But we quickly put the discouraging taste of The Phantom Menace behind us: Episode II was just around the corner. And once again we scoured each latest issue of the Insider (and websites like TheForce.Net) for clues to the next movie. One of the biggest teasers was the statement that Boba Fett would appear in the movie, if only as a young boy. And we quickly learned that Mace Windu would get a chance to show off his Jedi fighting skills with a purple lightsaber. Anakin grew older and was replaced by a different actor, and we finally got to see the precursors to stormtroopers: clone troopers, with much the same body armor and helmets. Tidbits like these held us over for the next three years until one momentous weekend in April 2002 shook up everything: Star Wars Celebration II, held at the Indianapolis Convention Center.

This was the mecca for Star Wars fans: a full weekend of non-stop seminars, exhibits, shopping areas, exclusives, previews, art shows, autograph signings, and games — with 25,000 other people along for the ride. Celebration II was an amazing experience for everyone; but the highlight was a sneak preview of Yoda and Dooku’s fight scene, disguised as a Spider-Man trailer. When producer Rick McCallum asked the packed audience if they wanted to see a new Spidey trailer on a digital screen, most of us were somewhat lukewarm. Words started scrolling across the screen, and I remember thinking that this was a rather boring trailer.

Then Yoda appeared out of nowhere and ignited his lightsaber…and the audience went wild. I’ve never heard that much cheering in an enclosed space before. Everyone was on their feet when the trailer ended, and suddenly I couldn’t remember anything about Episode I. That Attack of the Clones trailer had wiped away any lingering doubts about Star Wars’ return to awesomeness, and once again I was pumped for the next film.

Unfortunately, while Attack of the Clones wasn’t nearly as disappointing as The Phantom Menace, it still didn’t give me that sense of wonder and pure exhilaration that I received all those years ago watching the original trilogy for the first time. I wanted that same experience, and I wasn’t getting it, leaving me rather disgruntled with the way these prequels were turning out. But then I noticed something that made me think: some of my friends’ younger brothers and sisters were seeing the prequels for the first time without any knowledge of the original films — and they were falling in love just as I had when I was their age. They embraced Lucas’s recent creations wholeheartedly, and in some cases preferred them even after seeing the original trilogy. This third generation of Star Wars kids were stretching their imaginations and accepting the newer films on their own terms: as movies that sought to entertain, no matter what one’s age.

Another three years passed, and Revenge of the Sith hit theaters with just as much fanfare as the preceding two. This time, however, I was finally able to appreciate the film as pure entertainment and let all preconceptions go (especially comparisons to the original trilogy). It didn’t hurt that Revenge of the Sith was, by far, the best of the prequels. I found it much easier to forgive interminable plotting and stilted acting than I had previously, and simply enjoy the experience of seeing a new Star Wars film for the last time. I laughed, I cheered, I cried…and when the film ended and we spilled out onto a darkened parking lot, I felt complete. Here was my Star Wars experience at last.

Today I’m still as much of a fan as ever. I read all of the novels and occasionally pick up an action figure that catches my eye. And I eagerly await the animated Clone Wars and the live-action prequel TV shows to come. Yet even if those projects never come to fruition, I’ll still have all six movies to savor and enjoy for the rest of my life. And I will eventually pass on that same experience I had to my children, sitting them down in front of the TV and saying “Here are movies that Daddy grew up watching and still cherishes. Let me show you why I love them so much.”

Happy 30th anniversary, Star Wars.

May 24, 2007

You Want Me to Do What?

Posted in Books at 12:19 am by Calico Jack

I was sitting at the desk in the children’s department of the library, adding author labels to newly received books, when the phone rang:

“Children’s department. How may I help you?”

Yes, my son is doing a biography paper on Derek Jeter, and he needs some information about his life.”

“Well, we have a few biographies of Jeter checked in. Would you like me to put them on hold for you?”

The woman sounded rather disgruntled. “No, I just want you to give me the information over the phone. You know, read some facts about his life to me — where he grew up, how long he’s been playing baseball, that sort of thing.”

“I’m sorry; what would you like me to do?” I thought I wasn’t hearing her correctly.

Now she was definitely losing her self-control. “I want you to go get a book, flip through the pages, and tell me the important parts. You work in a library, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, but we simply don’t have the time to do your work for you. What I can do is leave a few biographies of Jeter at the children’s desk, and you can come pick them up if you’d like. Could I have your last name?”

She mumbled something unintelligible, curtly told me to leave the books at the circulation desk, and hung up.

I hate lazy parents. If you’re so desperate for information that you don’t even want to spend the time going to the library, then go find a bloody computer and type in the magic phrase “Derek Jeter” into Google or Wikipedia. But that probably takes too much effort (or intelligence) for some.

May 20, 2007

Album Review: A Weekend in the City

Posted in Music at 2:14 am by Edward Teach

A Weekend in the City, the newest major release by British new wave/punk outfit Bloc Party, manages to take a few, firm steps forward while minimizing talk of the sophomoric elephant in the corner.

In their first album, the band displayed a tight energy (“Banquet”, “Helicopter”) juxtaposed with more open and spacey fare (“So Here We Are”). A Weekend continues this trend, with tracks such as “The Prayer”, the British single, relying on a tribal thump to accompany the often, plaintive cries of Kele Okereke and propel the album forward. Many of the other tracks, while not filler, do require more commitment on the part of the listener.

Surprisingly, the band has managed to keep much of the same feel and tone while giving the audience more depth and maturity, both lyrically and musically. On Silent Alarm, the lyrical content was both barbed and poignant at times without sounding overtly preachy or coy. A Weekend carries some emotional and political baggage that filters through more apparently than on their previous efforts. The tracks “Hunting for Witches” and “Waiting for the 7.18” and their direct commentary on the London rail bombings are one example.

Overall, this release moves much slower than Alarm. Okereke attested to the fact that band realized that their music did not have to move fast to be good before the release of the non-album single, “Two More Years”. In fact, the aforementioned single turned out to be a definitive sign of the new direction the band has taken. Despite their mediocre success in the U.S., spots in magazines as diverse as Q to Planet attest to their world-wide rise in popularity. With luck, Bloc Party may be around for awhile.

As a complete album, A Weekend works. The flabbier elements and occasional inaccessibility are mostly outdistanced by the constant tone of quality that pervades most of the material. The result – a trim and well-produced example of artistic and punk sensibilities.


May 18, 2007

Movie Review: Shrek the Third

Posted in Movies at 7:31 pm by Calico Jack

The curse of the three-quels seems to be plaguing Hollywood in full force this year, as Shrek the Third provides an unexpectedly disappointing installment in what once was the only animated franchise that could match Pixar in wit and charm (of a sort). This time around, however, the producers have fallen victim to their own successes — or perhaps merely run out of ideas. Shrek the Third is almost devoid of humor; and even running at a trim 92 minutes, has little momentum to propel its staggeringly weak plot forward, instead relying on halfhearted slapstick comedy and tired gags to cover up the fact that this movie, in fact, simply isn’t much fun.

All of the cast from Shrek 2 are back once more, but there are no new characters with the same pizazz as Antonio Banderas’s Puss in Boots. Rather, Justin Timberlake gives a mediocre performance as the future King Arthur, now a shrimpy high school student in Worcestershire who prefers to be called Artie. Such a nickname can’t possibly do much for his manhood, as he spends his time being a target dummy for Lancelot’s jousting club and getting picked on by the resident D&D nerds.

After King Harold (John Cleese) passes away in a painfully protracted death scene, Shrek (Mike Myers) is now first in line to assume the throne — even though he would rather do nothing more than retire to his swamp with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and live the rest of his life king- and child-free. The only way out of this rather unenviable position is to bring Artie back home and have him claim the crown instead — fairly simple, right? Actually, for once it is: Shrek the Third neglects to build any sort of meaningful dichotomy or conflict between Shrek and Artie, but squeezes both characters into a generic “uncertain teacher/uncertain pupil” relationship during their trek home to Far, Far Away. Sidekicks Puss in Boots and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) serve only as scene filler for much of the movie, and the duo’s visual gag late into the second act falls flat in both premise and execution.

Complicating matters for beleaguered Shrek is Fiona’s announcement that ogre babies might be arriving soon; yet her pregnancy is woefully underdeveloped, and there are many missed opportunities for genuine humor regarding her situation. Rather, Shrek the Third takes the easy way out with the return of Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), leading an assorted band of fairy-tale villains (including Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin) and seeking to reclaim his “rightful” kingdom. The biggest problem with this plot development is that it doesn’t go anywhere; Charming takes over the castle, holds the kingdom hostage — and prepares an extravagant stage production, starring himself as a noble knight rescuing Rapunzel from her tower. As evil mastermind plans go, this one is rather anticlimactic. Only the fortuitous arrival of Shrek himself allows the prince to add drama to the proceedings, but even then there is little sense of urgency for anyone involved. And the addition of talented comediennes Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Sedaris as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, respectively, barely enhance this lackluster story; they are given little with which to work.

Shrek the Third looks awfully pretty, of course; the top-notch animation has always been one of Shrek‘s strengths. And it avoids the “bigger is better” syndrome which made such a mess of Spider-Man 3. But directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui have mistaken broad physical comedy for genuine humor and produced a film which feels trite at almost every turn. The wit of the first two films is also gone; nary a chuckle can be found amongst the interminable plotting and clichéd gags. Kids will most likely enjoy seeing the return of Shrek, but it should come as little surprise when the most-requested repeat viewings are for the first two films. Shrek the Third is a halfhearted mix of all sorts of unoriginality, and it is hard to see where the green ogre could possibly go from here.


May 11, 2007

Movie Review: 28 Weeks Later

Posted in Movies at 7:53 pm by Calico Jack

Few could have suspected the enthusiasm that greeted the release of Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later, a fresh take on the zombie genre which had grown rather stale in the decades following George Romero’s landmark Living Dead series. Boyle turned accepted conventions upside-down when he depicted a present-day Britain utterly desolated by a “rage” virus — a disease which caused its infected to lose all control over their aggression and animal instincts, yet forced them to breed new carriers through blood transfers (i.e., gruesome bites). Boyle’s zombies were fleet of foot and horrifyingly ferocious, yet the scariest images in 28 Days Later were of the complete devastation wrought by a country that had abandoned civilization for a primal, kill-on-sight society.

28 Weeks Later picks up six months after the initial outbreak, after the last remaining infected have died off from starvation. But its intense opening sequence actually occurs some months prior to the rest of the film; a few survivors are holed up in a rural farm, living off of canned food and only ever catching glimpses of daylight through the slatted boards nailed to the windows and doors. Among them are Don (Robert Carlyle) and Alice (Catherine McCormack), a husband and wife whose kids are vacationing in Spain, safely away from the carnage wracking the countryside. All is not idyllic, however, and disaster strikes almost immediately. Here director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (hand-picked by Boyle to take the reins in the sequel) gives the audience its first taste of what is to come: frenzied screaming and copious blood-spattering coupled with jittery camera cuts as an invasion of the infected quickly overwhelms the farmhouse’s inhabitants.

Once a U.S.-led NATO force establishes that Britain is free from contamination, a trickle of displaced refugees are allowed to come back to a quarantined area in London known as the “Green Zone.” Under the watchful eye of the U.S. military, these residents begin to rebuild their homes and their lives — or at least try to, although everyone seems to be walking around in a dazed stupor. Perhaps the magnitude of destruction in Britain is too much to comprehend for most. Two children are also a part of the quarantined civilians: Tammy (Imogen Poots) and her younger brother Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), Dom and Alice’s children now returned to their city.

Eager to reclaim memories of their family, Tammy and Andy sneak outside of the Green Zone and make their way back to their home. Something rather startling occurs (I’m trying to stay spoiler-free), and the two unleash a series of events that leads to a re-outbreak of infection, spreading through both soldiers and civilians like wildfire. Panicked at the realization that the military is unable to control the infected, Commanding General Stone (Idris Elba) orders a Code Red — the slaughter of everyone caught at ground level. Hellfire literally rains from the sky in a fiendish inferno of death and destruction, yet Tammy and Andy are fortuitously saved by Delta sniper Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and military doctor Scarlet (Rose Byrne). Scarlet knows that the children might hold the key to stopping the infection, but all four are marked for death by a military bent on eradicating anyone who could possibly come into contact with the infected.

28 Weeks Later is a rare sequel that is actually better than the original. In some ways it suffers from sequel-itis: bigger budget, bigger explosions, bigger everything. But Fresnadillo handles everything with a deft touch, and his depictions of desolated London are in many ways even more striking and disturbing than those in the original. This is also a film that I wish had been longer; its 99-minute running time flies by immensely fast — mostly due, I suspect, to the barrage of brutal images displayed one after the next in scenes of bloody terror. The audience is barely given a chance to breathe, let alone think about what has been shown, before the next calamity overtakes the ragged group of survivors fleeing for their lives. Such pacing does not always work well, but here it is inspired; the overwhelming theme of bleak hopelessness coupled with images of ferocious savagery create a truly horrifying experience. 28 Weeks Later is intelligently effective on almost every level, from a straightforward dystopian horror film to a bloody treatise on the difficulties of rebuilding a nation (and I mean that quite seriously). Now let’s hope that 28 Months Later can round out this generation’s best horror film trilogy in style.


May 10, 2007

MPAA: Yes to Violence, No to Smoking

Posted in Movies at 7:32 pm by Calico Jack

I guess Casablanca will now receive an R rating…that is, if this article from the Hollywood Reporter is any indication:

The MPAA says that for the first time film depictions of cigarette smoking will number among criteria used by its ratings board to determine how a movie is rated.

Anti-tobacco lobbyists have been pressing for an automatic “R” rating for films with smoking scenes, but MPAA chairman-CEO Dan Glickman on Thursday rejected that proposal and said a more nuanced policy will be implemented…

Glickman described the move as an extension of the MPAA’s current practice of factoring under-age smoking into the rating of films. He said the ratings board will ask three questions:

Is the smoking pervasive?

Does the film glamorize smoking?

Is there an historic or other mitigating context?

Now that lobbyists have managed to safely keep the kiddies away from seeing harmful scenes like Ingrid Bergman lighting up in Rick’s Cafe, what’s next? Will films be restricted for showing alcohol consumption, on the chance that some impressionable pre-teen might go home and filch a wine cooler from his parents’ refrigerator? Will the upcoming The Bourne Ultimatum be classified as age-inappropriate because Jason Bourne drives a car well over the speed limit? And what if he isn’t wearing his seat belt? Might the MPAA get a bit skittish if a film depicts an office worker typing at his desk without an ergonomically-friendly keyboard to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome? Where does one draw the line?

We mustn’t forget that violence doesn’t matter at all to the MPAA. Hey, it’s okay for your kids to see someone graphically kill another person — just make sure he isn’t smoking while he pulls the trigger. Sexual jokes and humor are fine; feel free to mock and debase that all you would like. Just don’t treat the issue with respect and maturity; you’ll get a restricted rating for daring to show a husband and wife in bed together. The hypocrisy of the ratings board is mind-boggling, as I pointed out in a previous post. The MPAA needs to stop acting like a nanny state and start holding parents accountable for what they let their underage children watch.

Here’s an idea: eliminate the ratings system altogether. I’ve been pondering the idea for some time now, and it makes quite a bit of sense. Instead of issuing arbitrary ratings, simply post a detailed list of all possibly objectionable content found in a movie. If it raises a set number of objectionable flags, then restrict minors from viewing the film without parental permission. Then let the parents decide if their children should be allowed to see the film or not. This would create a bit more work for lazy parents who rely on a letter or two to tell them what their kids should be watching, but somehow I can’t be bothered to feel sorry for those people. Stop relinquishing parental responsibilities to corporations whose main goal is to take your kids’ money.

May 6, 2007

TV Review: The Tudors

Posted in Television at 9:18 pm by Calico Jack

As an ardent fan of HBO’s Rome, I was excited to hear last winter that Showtime would be producing The Tudors, a miniseries about the early reign of Henry VIII. Rome was an excellent show because it depicted everything from the machinations of the Imperial Senate to the struggles that common soldiers faced after returning home from years-long sorties into foreign lands. Focusing on the political and military aspects of the crumbing Roman Republic gave it an epic scope, but Rome also showed the absolute decadence and corruption that pervaded the crumbling Roman Republic at the time Julius Caesar rose to power and proclaimed himself dictator. Its sweeping scale set the standard for what television could do, and Rome‘s meticulous attention to period detail was refreshing. Now I looked forward to enjoying a similarly-scoped story, this time set in Renaissance England. What’s not to like?

I wasn’t able to see The Tudors until Best Buy gave away a promo Showtime disc containing the first two episodes (along with Weeds and Dexter, both of which were merely okay), and I “acquired” episodes 3 & 4 through a little judicious online hunting. After watching all four hours (with six more remaining in the first season), I can safely say that Rome is in no danger of losing its perch as best period TV show of all time. The Tudors forgoes Rome’s depth and careful plotting for a slightly flashier, up-tempo style that reminds one of a marshmallow Peep: pretty on the outside, but quite a bit of fluff within.

Nonetheless, it has been an entertaining four episodes so far, and once my expectations were adjusted a bit I found that I enjoyed the show as more than merely a Rome-lite. Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks nothing like the real-life Henry VIII, which should alert the unwary that historical accuracy was a distant third or fourth place in the producers’ list of objectives. But Davies captures Henry’s philandering spirit and boyish charm quite well, although one would think that as he would display a greater gravitas as king — after all, he alone decides whether England should go to war with France, no matter what his advisors (each with his own personal agenda) say. Yet his interests and expertise lie more in the bedroom than the throne room, causing great consternation amongst his long-suffering wife Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Natalie Dormer is quite striking as the seductive Anne Boleyn, sent by her father to win over Henry’s heart and thereby influence his rash political tendencies. Most of the central figures in Henry VIII’s court are also present, from Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) to corrupt cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill). That latter bit of casting surprised me somewhat; for the first several episodes I was half-expecting him to say something like “Do you know what this is? This is a dinosaur egg. The dinosaurs are breeding.”

Although its strengths are many — special notice must be given to set design and costuming, both of which are visually stunning — The Tudors stumbles in two different areas. As mentioned, historical accuracy is not exactly the strength of the show. For many, having Mary Tudor and Margaret Tudor composited into one role will not matter in the slightest; but those who remember their English history might be rather irked at the liberties taken. The combination of Mary and Margaret is probably its most egregious error, which is a rather nitpicky thing to say, I suppose. Everything else is just window dressing.

The other flaw is its scope; or rather, the lack thereof. Unlike Rome, which spent much of its time among the shopkeepers and ex-soldiers of the Republic, there are almost no depictions of the the common man’s life in early sixteenth-century England. Focusing on Henry’s court with few outside connections leaves The Tudors feeling a bit less epic than it should have been. The lives of the wealthy and privileged had very little in common with ordinary citizens, but there is little sense of perspective in the marbled floors and golden goblets of Whitehall Palace.

One unfair criticism leveled against The Tudors is that since the audience knows how the story ends, why should they bother watching to find out what happens in the middle? But such a charge could be made against Rome itself, which turned this potential drawback into one of its strengths. Knowing the ending to these retellings only adds urgency to the proceedings, as the audience perhaps has a better grasp on the implications of certain characters’ actions than the characters themselves do. The Tudors is not quite as adept as Rome was in displaying that urgency, but I’ve watched less than half of the first season; and with a second season already ordered, the exploits of King Henry will be continuing for quite a while.

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