Friday, May 25, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Keira Knightley pleads with the King of Editors to please have mercy...

I love chocolate cake. In fact, I could probably eat chocolate cake a lot more often than I do if my scale were not guaranteed to depress me with the results of that kind of enjoyment, and even if the calories were promised to magically float away into the cosmos without making any contact with my hips, I could not chow down on chocolate cake for three hours straight. Watching the third and final installment of the wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was like doing just that, and similar to the effects of eating a mountain of chocolate cake, my body went into a numbing state of shock afterward. Frankly, my brain is still threatening to vomit hours after the onslaught.

This is not to say that At World's End is a bad movie. In fact, it was a very skillfully made, thrilling marvel. Like chocolate cake, it was actually quite delicious in parts. The special effects were top-notch, the action was near perfection, and the movie maintained the same affectionate sense of humor of the previous films, and even as the adventure passed the 2-hour mark with no discernible end in sight, I found that I was still engrossed. But (going back to the chocolate cake analogy that I intend to wear you out with in the same manner that director Gore Verbinski attempted to do with this bloated swashbuckler) it was the same kind of engrossment that one has when they go into binging autopilot; taste failed to enter the equation after awhile, with the act of chewing and swallowing taking center stage for the final 45 minutes.

I could try to describe the plot here, but would be like trying to taste each individual ingredient in every single taste of the now trite chocolate cake. It's simply impossible to do. About halfway through the film, I found that it was easier to swallow the whole thing in one big mushy gulp. Basically you have a giant conglomeration of pirates, none of whom are trustworthy and all of whom have a specific agenda. After about the eighth or ninth double-cross, I simply ceased to care because I assumed that it would all eventually come together in the end. I suppose it did. Either I masterfully figured it all out, or I was just too tired to give a damn, but I'll give you the basic sketch as I saw it. The infamous Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, as brilliant as ever, even if his performance was weighed down by extranneous plot elements is in Davie Jones' Locker, and the other regular players, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) have to rescue him. Apparently Sparrow's presence is needed at some big meeting of the world's pirate lords that will determine who will win in the big showdown between the pirates and the big bad Brits of the East India Trading Company.

But of course, it's never that simple. Every person aboard this ship has made a deal with or against someone else to get something else in return. Will wants the main ship, The Black Pearl, to make a deal with Davey Jones (the man with the be-tentatcled face) to free his father from the Flying Dutchman's crew. Jack Sparrow wants to make a deal with Norrington, the head of the East India Trading Company, in order to do something that would net him immortality after he slays Davey Jones and takes over as captain of The Flying Dutchman. Somewhere in there Keith Richards comes in and makes his cameo as Jack's Father. Oh and yeah, there is the whole deal with this goddess of the sea, Calypso, who is supposed to be freed from her bodily form by the pirate lords so that she can do... something. I don't know. I simply don't remember. I simply don't care. Trying to sort through the plot twists of this movie is like attempting to organize by color the scattered bits of confetti littering the streets after the New Years Eve party in Times Square.

What this all boils down to is whether the third and final Pirates of the Caribbean film is worth seeing. I guess that depends. Of course, if you are a fan of this franchise, then you will see it no matter what I say. And I won't lie -- the final 45 minutes of the movie were an absolute wonder to behold. But are those 45 breathtaking minutes worth the 2 hour near-doldrum that precedes them? Barely. A three-hour movie is only successful if one fails to notice that their butt is numb from sitting for so long, and I was shifting in my seat well before the credits rolled.

The producers of this film need to realize that just because we love Johnny Depp's unique characterization and the endearing antics of his scurvy crew, we are not required to be force-fed to the point of bursting in order to be satisfied. Like a deliciously rich chocolate cake, it's best served in smaller slices. And speaking of slicing, I would have been a lot more satisfied if the editors had considered doing even a smidge of that in post-production. I'd much more prefer this movie on DVD. At least then I'd be able to get a doggy bag.

Gouda's Final Grade: C

Sunday, May 13, 2007

28 Weeks Later

There's no light at the end of this tunnel...

Oh hey look! It's a post-apocalyptic horror movie featuring zombie-like creatures and mostly little-known actors! It is obviously going to be a recipe for cheesiness, disappointment, wasted money, and the loss of a couple precious hours that could have otherwise been spent doing more productive things. Right?

Hold on there, chap. Apparently you've never seen "28 Days Later," hailed as one of the best movies of the genre, and I will be the among many who will hail its sequel "28 Weeks Later" as very nearly that movie's equal as well as one of the most unnerving horror movies I've seen in quite some time.

"28 Weeks," as you can guess by its title, picks up a few months from where the first film left off. Britain has been decimated by a "rage virus" that turns its victims into marauding, bloodthirsty nutbags. Most of the diseased have died off from starvation, and the U.S. Army has moved in to help clean up and bring people back into areas that have been designated safe and free of infection. The film's plot focuses on two children, Andy and Tammy, who reunite with their father Don (Robert Carlyle) after a long separation in which the children's mother was lost to groups of diseased people who were still roaming the English countryside. Although the Army keeps a tight control over the city's "safe zone," it is inevitable that the virus would find a way to penetrate the barrier, and when it does, all hell breaks loose.

Downtown London is a vision that is bleak and frightening, as we see streets and buildings devoid of life and piled with the debris of a civilization recently obliterated. This realism is enhanced by brilliantly realistic art direction, a raw soundtrack (although silence permeates a good deal of the film, which is equally effective), and grainy, washed-out cinematography. The editing is very jerky and frenetic, something about which I'd normally complain, but actually admired in this type of setting, which is designed to make us feel as confused as the characters themselves.

Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who also penned the screenplay, does a fantastic job of staging an atmosphere that is nothing short of chilling, and he never fails to instill this gnawing sense of unease and dread. A stand-out scene in the film involves our main characters moving through a pitch-black subway station with the aid of a nightscope. I was reminded briefly of the final scene in The Silence of the Lambs, and every muscle in my body was taut with anxiety the entire time. Also escalating the tension is that one never quite certain when one of the protagonists is going to bite it (or get bitten, as the case may be). Although this is a typical feature in most scary movies, what makes "28 Weeks Later" different is that we are actually made to care about many of these characters. Even the soldiers are portrayed as human in this film, when they could otherwise have been made to be cold, mechanized, stereotypical killers. We see their horror when they are ordered to kill every living thing on site (even uninfected citizens) in order to contain the infection, and we feel it as well.

It's rare to find a film in the horror genre that delivers on so many levels: technical skill, genuine scares, and sincerely heart-wrenching dread. "28 Weeks Later" doesn't let up, and we feel drained at the end. My only question is, are we going to be getting an update on the status of this apocalypse in 28 months?

Gouda's Final Grade -- A