Methodical Turnover At Heart of Zombie-Drama 'Maggie'

Directed by: Henry Hobson; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: B-

Hopefully, the time for cheekiness about Arnold Schwarzenegger being in a zombie movie that isn't much like a traditional zombie movie should be coming to a close sometime soon. That frame-of-mind almost works like an easy distraction from whatever issues one might have with Maggie, which is built on a premise strong enough to land on the blacklist of best unproduced screenplays four years prior. After all, if first-time director Henry Hobson's film turns out to be lackluster, then at least you got the chance to see the badass responsible for Dutch, Douglas Quaid, and The Governator give a small and unique indie the old college try, right? Surprisingly, neither the familiar concept nor the performances pose any threats to this artfully novel synthesis of apocalyptic horror and parental crisis. Instead, its tonal heaviness -- both sentimental and tragic -- and narrative longevity without energetic beats are what keep it quarantined from the potential magnitude of its character drama.

In a way, despite being just a farmer in a secluded area of the American midwest, Wade Vogel still turns out to be a heroic role for Schwarzenegger. The disappearance of his daughter -- accompanied by a voice message telling him not to look for her -- leads Wade to search the surrounding area for several weeks, finally landing on her location in a hospital. There, he learns that Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been diagnosed with the rampant, society-crippling epidemic that has plagued the country, one that turns people into mindless cannibals after a grueling transformation. Options are limited to giving over the severely infected to quarantine zones, or to take care of the situation independently. With a little help from someone he knows in the medical profession, Wade chooses the latter, bringing Maggie back to his country home with the intent of spending as much time with her as possible before it happens ... and ensuring that nobody, not even the authorities, prevents that from happening.

The process of turning into a zombie in the world of Maggie takes longer than it does in most other horror settings, sharing more in common with a terminal illness than those other quick biological mutations designed to create packs of monsters for the heroes to avoid (and shoot in the head). The script from first-time writer John Scott III intelligently explores that difference for the sake of complicated personal conflicts and tough decisions, though it overestimates the staying power of Maggie's slow progression and the scenario's confined scope. The situation extends to a degree where it feels like a low-energy, high-emotion subplot from The Walking Dead has been stretched and spread into a primary two-episode story, bloating the gloomy drama within picturesque, filtered camerawork of the bucolic setting. With that, though, the focus also shifts to the moral dilemma in Wade Vogel's hands as he watches his daughter gradually slip away, aiding the lethargic pace by pulling no punches in emphasizing the certainty of it all.

There's little denying the bleak, heartbreaking intentions coursing through Maggie's veins, especially once the young woman starts coming to grips with her mortality, the tragedy she's previously weathered and the things she'll never get to fully experience. While the brawny Terminator star has justly received attention for his tempered attitude here, the bulk of the film's substance relies on Abigail Breslin's capacity to approach the zombie infection like an incurable and fatal disease. Her character copes with a lot, both physically and emotionally, and Breslin's responses to the worsening prognosis and disappearing humanity heighten the grim inevitability of the premise. Melancholy musings about Maggie's deceased biological mother and budding romance halted by the pandemic are quietly moving, her character's despondency maturely handled even when we'd expect anger to get the best of her. Focusing on her character tends to be a two-edged sword, though, limiting any examination of the other characters -- especially her step-mother -- to one-note responses to her worsening condition.

Maggie's physical changes throughout the film are compellingly subtle at first, enough to be observable amid the drama -- clouding eyes, darkening of veins, eroding skin -- without offsetting any emotional intentions. The drawn-out tempo of the story actually works to her transformation's favor, elaborating on each incremental stage for a comprehensive depiction of both her descent and of Wade's tormented resolve, taking familiar zombie-movie tropes and genuinely expanding on them. Hobson's direction only reaches true heights when she crosses a threshold in her symptoms, the point where she starts to lose what makes her human as Wade's moment of decision approaches. There are no bad guys here or objectively correct pathways taken, and Schwarzenegger's burly emotive poise really embraces the enormity of the situation through the character's safeguarding of his daughter until the time comes. To the end, he convincingly portrays a father who'll fight to ensure that her mortality lies in their hands, earning the film's somber but comparatively rewarding moment where Maggie's preference trumps all.

'Last Knights' a Well-Mounted But Spiritless Storm on a Castle

Directed by: Kazuaki Kiriya; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: C-

47 Ronin isn't an inventive title by any stretch, but at least there's something conveyed through the wordage used, emphasizing the state of trained warriors in feudal Japan who have lost their master or experienced dishonor. It takes some effort to devise a title that's less creative or informative than that, but Casshernand Goemon director Kazuaki Kiriya manages to make it happen with Last Knights, his own under-the-radar adaptation of the historical legend built around the forty-seven warriors who sought to reclaim the honor of their lord. The hope, naturally, is that there's more imagination poured into the quasi-samurai epic itself than reflected by the title, and while that does end up being the case to a certain degree, it's not for the right reasons. Robust casting choices, a cleverly indistinguishable time period, and a degree of confidence in the lack of medieval action throughout the majority of the picture can't overcome the leaden, grim bones that comprise its skeletal rendition of an oft-told fable.

It's worth noting that Last Knights does end up being a slightly sharper and more rewarding take on Chushingura fiction than the Keanu Reeves vehicle from two years prior, 47 Ronin, which goes in a number of bizarre directions for the sake of Hollywood bluster. Instead, this version sticks more intimately to the story's core elements while making smarter alterations, focused on the loyalty of a regiment of skilled warriors -- led by a commoner-turned-leader, Commander Raiden (Clive Owen), with a checkered past -- sworn to protect the vassal realm overseen by Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman), whose relationship with the greedy empire hits a wall after they demand a hefty bribe to reaffirm his clan's allegiance. Defiant, Bartok refuses to kowtow to their demands, which leads to a public display by the Emperor and his minister, the mustache-twirling imp Gezza Mott (Aksel Hennie), that diminishes the reputation of the lord and releases the warriors of their duty. Despite Raiden reverting to his prior careless and drunken pursuits afterwards, the others methodically plan to reclaim their lord's honor.

Many positive and negative observations can be made about Kazuaki Kiriya's previous films, but one constant among them tends to be a shrewd and intricate eye for production design, something that carries over to Last Knights. He takes the snowy, stony atmosphere of the Czech Republic and transforms the realm into one separated from both earthly time and region, crafting a new cultural structure that's a melting pot of Japanese, European, and English concepts. That carries over to the attire as well: the streamlined armor and hilt-less blades wielded by Raiden and his men nail an intriguing balance of form and function, while the ornate robes and lustrous palace dressings of the oppressive imperial reign are reminiscent of something Tarsem Singh or Julie Taymor might orchestrate in a restrained frame of mind. Crafting a grounded neutral setting like this that's still intriguing to look at isn't an easy endeavor, but the austere contrast between Clan Bartok and the Emperor's realm achieves that, if in a manner still reminiscent of other works.

Alas, those promising production elements merely go towards dressing up anemic, dated themes and shallow plotting in Last Knights, feeling more like the buildup of a videogame hero's progression to the big battle than a layered story of redemption, sacrifice, and tribute. Clive Owen works his rugged, enigmatic charm as Commander Raiden rather well, capturing both the atoned dignity of a sentinel and the down-and-out gristle of a defeatist hero, while Morgan Freeman gracefully telegraphs carefully-worded speeches of defiance against tyranny in his limited screen time. Despite the ways they accentuate the pride of the clan leader and the burgeoning darkness of the transformed antihero, they're still just working hard to bolster the blandly oppressive politics that are roughly as black and white as the lion's share of the film's visual aesthetic, where persistent dialogue about the stalwart preservation of honor manages to be both overdrawn and colorless.

By design, Last Knights revolves around the anticipation behind getting to how -- not if, but how -- Clan Bartok will reclaim their honor from the petulant minister, a manic and paranoid political villain who abuses both his power and his underlings. Despite the wait that Kazuaki Kiriya puts the audience though with Raidan's fall from grace, he admirably focuses on the stealth and subterfuge of a grand siege instead of dialing up the sword-clanking gravitas to compensate for the delay, telegraphing convincingly muted swordplay and archery only when it becomes necessary. That said, the energy of the action also never gets beyond moderate heights of spectacle, offering a subdued and predictable payoff for the bleak period following the warriors' dismissal. That's not just because of familiarity with the source, either: momentous duels go down between foreseeable opponents, traps and schemes go off without a hitch, and the ultimate price gets paid by those who almost seem destined for it. Everything's just dull in its credibility, a modest retread of medieval epic ground that clearly had the aptitude to accomplish more.

Undermarked Oversights: Vanilla Sky

Pay closer attention to the opening sequence in Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise's then-unidentified character speeds through Times Square -- both on foot and in a gorgeous Ferrari -- without a soul in sight. The dreamlike nature of the scene isn't easily overlooked, of course, but there's more underneath and beyond the surface than seen at first blush, revealed in whispered voices and quick flashes as he hysterically spins at the heart of New York City. It's a hell of a thing to start a narrative with false bearings on reality like this, later revealed to be the first musings that David Aames has divulged to his psychological evaluator, Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell), before the start of a murder case. So begins Cameron Crowe's reverent remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos, one whose attention to style and emotion justifies its existence while smartly expanding on the mentality of the man in question. What results is a provocative descent into unreturned desire, authentic love, and the power of the subconscious.

Not to give it excuses or anything, but Vanilla Sky didn't really have it easy in the year of its release. On top of being a Hollywood remake of the critically-acclaimed Spanish film, it also had to contend with the debut of Lynch's Mulholland Drive and the wider distribution of Nolan's Memento -- both of which generated buzz by accomplishing similar things in superior ways -- earlier that year. Therefore, the field was crowded in the psycho-puzzle subgenre, and the twisted story of David Aames' conflict of romantic pursuits and amnesiac murder mystery wasn't, in a literal sense, anything new. Crowe tweaks the narrative, though, by emphasizing the protagonist's legacy as the heir to a publishing empire, accentuating his recklessness with the business end of things and a general self-awareness of the tools at his disposal: charisma, wealth, and appearance. That makes it all the more intriguing to watch his casual tryst with clingy actress Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) evolve beyond his control, and to see it all deconstructed by a beautiful but comparatively commonplace dancer, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), who immediately steals his heart.

Having Tom Cruise in the central role adds a degree of meta-context to Vanilla Sky, whose pop-culture stature merges with David's grasp on vanity and mortality. Already displaying a versatile dramatic side in Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, Cruise admirably embraces the understated commentary on his persona through his character's carefree place of power and his thorny relationship with his father, with his easy charm and building anxiety driven by writer/director Crowe's good-natured style of human interaction. An immediate spark ignites between his character and Sofia within, unsurprisingly, a cluttered celebration of the greatness of David on his birthday, and it stays credible throughout the film due to how Penelope Cruz's down-to-earth wit and allure drags him out of the clouds, shaping into a poignant love story. The standout performance, however, emerges in Cameron Diaz with arguably the best turn of her career (second, perhaps, to Being John Malkovich), encapsulating obsession and one-way affection in a beautiful shell that's both sympathetic and unsettling, the cloud over David's happiness.

Infusing ethereal tracks by composer (and wife) Nancy Wilson and Icelandic band Sigur Ros with classic and contemporary melancholy pop songs, director Crowe again uses his musical awareness to heighten the visual and dramatic tempo in Vanilla Sky. Instead of directly enveloping scenes in the feel of a time period or the clear emotional state of a character, however, his musical selection here transports the audience through the complicated space of David Aames' mind, guiding the film in both similar and differing tonal directions to that of Amenabar's original intents. Crowe's attunement to sound mixes intriguingly with the growingly abstract nature of David's telling of the events, embracing an attitude that's somewhere between the earnest warmth of the director's previous pictures and the disappearing grip on reality within David's psychosis. Overt sentimentality does get in the way of establishing a consistent suspenseful mood, but that duality also becomes one of the film's distinguishing attributes as the tone shifts between those margins.

Along the way, Cameron Crowe never lets the viewer forget that this is a narrative being spun by an imprisoned man in a latex mask, divulged to an inquisitive psychiatrist as he builds a case for David's mental state surrounding a murder accusation. Paired with the evocative perspective of Braveheart and Almost Famous cinematographer John Toll, surreal cues emerge through the film's visual language that suggest there's more to everything than what we're shown, where little details scattered about -- photographs, drawings, even the mole on someone's body -- begin to play with the perspectives of both David and the audience's trust level in him. It's at this point where Vanilla Sky pulls the curtain back on what it's really about, descending into the pandemonium of nightmares and unreliable narration through warped science-fiction that recalibrates just about everything that's transpired thus far. Crowe doesn't get carried away with it all, either, keeping a firm grip on what's safe to be deduced and not as the film shapeshifts into a psychological thriller.

Vanilla Sky tumbles down that rabbit hole in a wild, slyly unsettling climax to the tragic mysteries of David's life, both revealing the truth of what's going on and inviting different interpretations to what it all means through layered clues, more flashes of images and whispers in the distance. It's unsurprising that heavy emotion speaks louder than thematic lucidity in Crowe's ending, the most divergent part of the film from the original; however, the bittersweet nature in how it feeds into the choice between moving on with one's life or perpetuating an illusion says enough. Despite tiptoeing around some rather dark elements, it leaves the audience with a degree of cathartic optimism hanging in the air alongside swelling atmospheric music and painterly surroundings, yet there's also the lingering sensation that everything hasn't been, and won't be, fully answered. Whether repeat viewings will bring that more into focus depends on the viewer, but thankfully experiencing the sweet and sour of David's life is compelling enough to continue doing so anyway.