Friday, December 14, 2007

The End of the World As We Know It

The Mist

Frank Darabont's "The Mist", based on the Stephen King story of the same name, is their best collaboration since Darabont's humanistic treatment of "The Shawshank Redemption". "The Mist" is good, old fashioned gory fun. It definitely takes some smarts to keep the tension going when a horror film is confined to one central location (a supermarket) for over 95% of its running time, and Darabont's eye continually finds ways to open up the setting and keep us involved with the array of characters. In a nutshell, the population of the film serve as a microcosm of the world at large. Not only are races, ages, gender and financial backgrounds addressed, but the story pays particular attention to the vicissitudes that arise when religion enters the frame. And not only does "The Mist" get plenty of mileage out of its religion-mongering, but it acutely paints a convincing portrait of the apocalypse coming to town.

As for the story itself, Thomas Jane plays the New England American male to the hilt, starring as David Drayton. We get brief glimpses of his perfect life on the New England coast as he deals with the after-effects of a violent storm. Drayton and his young son (Nathan Gamble) give neighbor Brent Norton (intellectual New York lawyer played by Andre Brougher) a ride into town. The film kicks into action barely ten minutes in as a mysterious fog envelops the town and someone runs into the supermarket with a bleeding nose describing creatures from the mist picking people apart. From then on, the supermarket becomes the battle ground as all stratus of life defend themselves from the impending other-worldly creatures. Among the stand-outs of the large ensemble cast include Laurie Holden as the virtual stand-in for Thomas Jane's missing wife to give him comfort and loving crush-like glances, Toby Jones (yes, that other "Capote" guy), William Sadler and someone almost as terrifying as the unknown things in the mist, Marcia Gay Harden as the eventual proposed "vessel for God".

I don't mean for this brief plot synopsis to sound glib. It's hard to give "The Mist" justice from a narrative standpoint. Somehow, Darabont makes the "b" movie generics work and you actually feel for the characters. Unlike other recent horror films, they aren't just pieces of meat thrown into cringe-inducing circumstances with little more than a beautiful aesthetic to drive any feelings about them. Darabont's visuals and King's content care about their backgrounds and their intelligent reasoning. Not only that, but there are some genuine surprises here that push "The Mist" above the average horror film. Why it's failed with critics and audiences alike, I'm not sure. I understand the film is relatively faithful to King's original concept (right up to the very dark and supremely depressing ending that I applaud), so it's not a matter of Hollywood screwing up the adaptation. Perhaps the real culprit is a tough schedule. How many people really care to see a gory film on Thanksgiving (which was its original release date)? Either way, "The Mist" is an entertaining experience whether its Halloween or turkey day.

Margot At the Wedding

The second film, Noah Baumbach's "Margot At the Wedding", describes the apocalypse in smaller, more intimate ways. It comes in the guise of Nicole Kidman as Margot, returning home for a wedding for her sister, Pauline (a radiant Jennifer Jason Leigh). In tow is Margot's son, Claude (Zane Pais), and its not initially made clear the reasons for Margot's sudden departure from her husband and other son in New York, even though elliptical cell phone calls to home reveal unpleasant feelings. Margot's urban malaise soon spreads to her sister and fiance (Jack Black) as the wedding date draws near. Margot is a woman who continually divulges secrets to others, quietly spreads her judgemental attitude of Pauline's choice for marriage, and cannot face her own shortcomings, which includes an affair with local writer Dick Koosman (Ciaren Hinds). To make matters worse, Koosman lives a mile from Pauline, slowly surfacing the idea that Margot re-united with her sister not out of familial harmony but selfish sexual attraction.

Baumbach's fifth feature is ugly in every way. Cinematographer Harris Savides' natural light usage came off as splotchy and under lit on the print I watched. Nicole Kidman is an insufferable woman (to use a quote from the film itself) and while some vicious chamber drams can be penetrating, "Margot At the Wedding" comes off as inept. Young Claude seems to be the most damaged persona from the waves of Margot's bad vibes. One moment his mother is telling him to wear the shades she bought him because "they look cool" and the later, immediately after smiling and putting them on, she comments that "they make your face look wide". As a study in child abuse, "Margot At the Wedding" is spot-on... as anything else it's often trite and artless. Baumbach's previous feature, "The Squid and the Whale" also dealt with the progressive dissolution of a marriage and the effects on two young boys. In that film, Baumbach seemed to be throwing darts and hitting the mark, expressing adolescent feelings of confusion and frustration with precise understanding. In "Margot At the Wedding", the themes come off simply as confusing and frustrating.

Both reviews can be read at Talking Moviezzz.

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