Gore Verbinski's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (2007)

Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Johnny Depp
Who allowed this mess of a film to leave the editing room? Rather, who let production begin with that hodgepodge of a script? The Curse of the Black Pearl offered two hours of fairly fast-paced fun and clever one-liners, and though not quite as strong, Dead Man's Chest maintained the tone of the original. At World's End offers very little of either. While both previous PotC films enjoyed employing various plot twists, this film becomes bogged down by the complications it tries to throw at the audience, which are downright confusing at times. And ultimately many of the plots end up not mattering very much.

After two films, Johnny Depp has become complacent in Jack Sparrow's skin. While he still delivers a zinging line or two, Jack has lost some of his sparkle. Initially I did enjoy Jack's more jaded persona, but no interesting subplots emerge from his change in demeanor. The adventures in Dead Man's Chest have pleasantly made Will a bit darker, adding a little spice to a white-bread character. But the film really belongs to Keira Knightley. Over the course of the three films, Elizabeth has progressed from being a passive damsel in distress to a confident, assertive leader. Unfortunately, Depp and Knightley's sparking chemistry is absent from this installment as they only exchange a handful of lines. Instead, the writers attempt to reignite Will and Elizabeth's flagging relationship to contrived though fairly satisfactory ends.

As far as supporting characters, Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbossa but isn't nearly as enjoyable due to his switch to the hero side of things. Davy Jones (voice of Bill Nighy) also returns as less menacing and less of a villain. Newcomer Chow Yun-Fat attempts to fill Rush's campy villain role and does his fair amount of scenery chewing. Tom Hollander gives a nice performance as the East India Company's Beckett, but the audience never considers that he will best Jack. Stellan SkarsgÄrd again does some nice work as Bootstrap Bill, earning sympathy from the audience and keeping his scenes with Orlando Bloom from becoming too schmaltzy.

Chow Yun-Fat, Keira Knightley
This film contains some interesting visual images pertaining to its portrayal of women. For the majority of the film, Elizabeth minimizes her feminine appearance by keeping her hair under a hat or in a braid. Even though Sao Feng dresses her in a gown, Elizabeth first struck me as looking really feminine when she lets her hair down after she has become Pirate King and is motivating the crew of The Black Pearl to lead the brethren into battle. Indeed she has defined her own femininity rather than allowing society (the corset in The Curse of the Black Pearl) or men (Sao Feng) to define her femininity for her. Though Elizabeth only seems to gain power when men give it to her (Sao Feng makes her captain, Jack's vote make her Pirate King), she embraces that power and does not rely on men to employ it. I do wish that there had been a scene at the end of the film that confirmed whether she remained captain of Sao Feng's ship.

I cannot decide if the Calypso storyline inadvertently hints at racism. The brethren stripped Calypso of her power and bound her to human form: a Black woman human form. When Calypso's powers are unbound she retains her physical appearance — except she gets bigger — so perhaps she would possess that form as a god as well. However, even after she regains her powers, she remains bound by ropes and only escapes by obliterating her human form and, um, turning into a bunch of crabs. (Yes, I thought to myself, "Hee! She has crabs," when that happened. Because I'm 12.) While the fact that a Black actress portrays a god in the film pleases me, that final image of Calypso suggests that she did not have any power when she resembled a Black woman.

Despite its sluggish initial half hour, I recommend Dead Man's Chest because the latter half of the film delivers the same goods as The Curse of the Black Pearl. I cannot do the same for At World's End, which never manages to be as funny, exciting, or spectacular. The problem with multiple sequel, big budget films such as PotC is that the producers feel compelled to make each succeeding film bigger and crammed with more special effects. With At World's End, PotC has grown big to the point that it has become unwieldy.

Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp

Amber also likes to tie shirts around her waist

Amber Benson
Amber BensonAmber BensonAmber BensonAmber Benson

What was the rationale behind this photoshoot?

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas BrendonSarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas BrendonSarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas BrendonSarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon
Or perhaps the better question is what was the rationale behind Nick Brendon's striped pants? And why is Alyson Hannigan shoved into the background in almost all of the photos?

All of them are trying for the mysterious, sexy pout that American mags seem to like, but none of them are entirely succeeding.

Alexander Payne's 'Election' (1999)

Election is a delicious satire of high school student council politics that manages to generate both humor and poignancy. Alexander Payne's direction is perfect, and his vision is realized by a quartet of strong lead performances.

I'm amazed that Reese Witherspoon experienced difficulty landing roles after appearing in this film because I think her performance is tremendous. Witherspoon plays Tracy as manipulative and vindictive, but the audience can feel sorry for her when she sobs after losing the election and can still see her as a victim of Mr. Novotny's inappropriate attention and her mother's unfulfilled ambitions. She more than any other actor has to walk a very fine line between character and caricature, and a less-skilled performer in this role would have sunk the film.

With this role Matthew Broderick comes full circle from his star-making performance in the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Jim McAllister is the opposite of Ferris in every way, from his age and occupation to his personality. The Jim character and Broderick's performance elevate this film from being just another high school movie.

Tammy very rightly asserts in her campaign speech that school elections only matter to the students who run because "Student Council President" looks good on a college application. For the student candidates, the election represents a stepping stone into a promising future. Jim, who feels trapped and emasculated by his own life, resents that sense of possibility and drive, which he sees particularly in the overzealous Tracy. As Jim's life falls apart he becomes more and more desperate to deny Tracy her trajectory.

The visual techniques Payne uses, such as the freeze-frames, dissolves and wipes, as well as Tracy's "Navajo Joe" musical cue feel like an organic part of telling the story rather than mere directorial flourishes. Visually, Payne associates Tracy with straight lines and Jim with circles, implying that Tracy can move forward while Jim will forever remain on the same path. Payne also uses a recurring image of trash, suggesting that people are forever making and cleaning up messes.

Payne's script that he co-wrote with Jim Taylor is just as strong as the direction with one tiny exception: Tammy's story feels strangely truncated. Jessica Campbell plays Tammy so beautifully that I want to see more of her. I want to know what happens to Tammy after she lies about tearing down her brother's posters before the epilogue rolls around. Payne and Taylor's script demonstrates confidence in actors' ability to define characters, and they do not write more than the story demands. For example, Jim's conflict with his wife is wonderfully low-key. Election also distinguishes itself as one of a handful of films whose narration is actually good and adds to the tone and flavor of the movie.

For some reason I really like this picture

This is the weirdest photo

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan

'The Chosen' by Chaim Potok (1967)

Chaim Potok's The Chosen explores being a Jew in the rather tumultuous time of the 1940s and early '50s. Reuven Malter, raised by a liberal Jewish scholar, befriends Danny Saunders, the son and heir apparent to a Hasidic rabbi. The novel follows the development of their friendship over the course of seven years as it faces obstacles presented by their faith, their fathers, and growing up. ....Geez, this paragraph really sounds like the summary for a book flap.

I found Potok's writing style to be a little, well, flaccid is the word that comes to mind. His sentence constructions tended to be rather immature, though I do admit that his writing style became more sophisticated as the story progressed and the characters aged. I really disliked the way that he would jump through time, glossing over several months or a year. I understand that he really wanted to set this narrative against the backdrop of the conflict about Israel within the Jewish community, but he could have started the novel in a later year to accomplish that goal. He also could have used the chapter or "part" breaks to represent jumps in time.

Potok examines the different means of communication, emphasizing especially the importance of nonverbal communication. Silence and the compassion or alienation that can emerge from silence is one of the major themes of the novel. The senses are also very important to Potok with sight and hearing playing a big role. While the father/son dynamic is central to The Chosen, female/mother figures are either absent or weak. Many of the characters are also stricken with a chronic illness or recurring bouts of poor health, suggesting that the concept of "The Family" might be sick or ailing.

While I enjoyed the story, I most appreciated the information about Judaism that Potok provides. As I said, I found Potok's writing style lacking, but I think that I need to reread this novel to fully appreciate some of its themes.

Amber likes to sit with her feet up

Amber Benson, James Marsters, Andy Hallett
Amber Benson, George Herzog, James MarstersAmber BensonAmber BensonAmber BensonAmber BensonAmber Benson

circa 1999

'Eleanor Rigby' by Douglas Coupland (2004)

Not my favorite of Coupland's books, but Eleanor Rigby offers an entertaining and sometimes poignant narrative. The story felt a little superficial, like he had a good idea but did not mine it for all of its melodramatic goodness. The content seemed to explore similar territory as my favorite Coupland novel All Families Are Psychotic and likewise does not have much of Coupland's trademark social commentary. However, AFAP's narrative felt sharper, better realized, and the storylines more intricately woven.

I read this book even though it breaks my rule about authors narrating in the opposite sex. Due to the content of the book Coupland's lack of a woman's perspective was a little glaring. But it was a quick read and resonated with me on some level, which is something. While perhaps not a masterful deliberation, Eleanor Rigby provides an interesting portrait of loneliness.

An Odd Couple

Amber Benson, Iyari LimonWith the sign in the background declaring who rocks harder.

No, no, I'm kidding. I have nothing against Iyari Limon just...you know, Willow's other girlfriend. Yuck. I don't even like to say her name.

Andrew C. Erin's 'Simple Things' (2007)

I have not been so depressed by a family film since I finally saw Bambi in its entirety when I was fourteen. Writer-director Andrew Erin's second full-length feature begins on a dour sequence -- a father and son attending the funeral of their wife and mother -- and ends with a note that isn't that much happier when the father saves his son from dying of an asthma attack. The somber tone prevails throughout the film, alleviated only occasionally by the natural, disarming performance of young Channing Nichols. This film is practically a study of depression, isolation, and loss.

The premise of the film is not unfamiliar: a doctor from a large city opens a practice in a small town. However, the impetus that gets Dr. Gibbs to North Carolina seems rather contrived. I would have preferred that he move because he needed to relocate after his wife's death. The impulse is not an uncommon one. The plot of Simple Things does not offer much in the way of surprises, relying on tried and true plot devices of the family film genre. But Simple Things handles them with more subtlety than most. My main argument with the script is that I have difficulty believing that people living in a community 20-30 minutes away from Asheville would be so antagonistic toward outsiders. Sure, Asheville is not a large city, but it draws a lot of tourists. I'd imagine that the people would see "city folk" fairly frequently.

The film features many solid performances, with those of Nichols and Amber Benson standing out particularly. The only actor who seems out of his depth is Cameron Bancroft. His performance feels wooden at times, which works to an extent given that he is grieving his wife; however, as the film progresses his demeanor doesn't change much even though Evan warms to his environment.

This film looks fantastic. Brian Baugh's cinematography does justice to the beauty of North Carolina's mountains. However, the editing felt a little rough at points, most notably when Dr. Gibbs sees Sally and Darryl at the dance (was the actual baby only available for those insert shots?) and when Darryl is demanding that Dr. Gibbs help April (Sally just seems to appear).

After watching the film, I can't say that I have a strong desire to view it again. The film wasn't poorly made or poorly acted, but the story didn't allow for me to connect with enough of the characters to endure that theater of pain a second time.

The Witchlets

Amber Benson, Alyson Hannigan

Amber Benson, Alyson Hannigan