REVIEW: The Wind That Shakes The Barley/28 Weeks

28-weeks-later.jpgTHE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006, directed by Ken Loach, 127 minutes, U.K.)
28 WEEKS LATER (2007, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 99 minutes, U.K.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I was about 14 years old when I finally stopped going down to the newsstand to pick up my weekly batch of superhero comics, and aside from a few exceptions for work by Frank Miller or Alan Moore, I’ve never looked back. I’m told there is still some imaginative writing still going on in comics, and I’m not saying my fantasies today are any more mature, but the dream of wearing a leotard and fighting crime just doesn’t strike me where I live anymore.

So why is it that this week my comic book apathy suddenly looks like a grave character flaw when one acquaintance after another expresses disappointment that I haven’t yet seen the new Spider-Man film? What can I say to redeem myself? It was 2001 when the first big-screen Spider-Man arrived, and ever since it has been six years of gossip about their filming, box-office updates, home video releases, giant bus ads, pay-cable debuts as well as Spidey’s face on nearly every product in the drug store. Even the post office had tie-ins! Maybe my inner child has developed ADD, because like a dog that has gone stiff at the end of his leash I find myself unwilling to spend another season plumbing the depths of a 1960s comic book character. So what if his web-swinging looks more “real” than ever as he fights the guy from Sideways, it’s hard to stay a 12-year-old for six years running.

Too bad a smidgen of that blockbuster mania couldn’t have rubbed off on last week’s opening of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the urgent drama on “The Troubles” that won the 2006 Golden Palm. Tucked away in one of the Ritz’s smaller screens during its opening week, the film seemed under-attended even on a bargain Wednesday. It’s a shame because, similar to Paul Verhoeven’s latest, Black Book, Barley is a rip-snorting and thoughtful adventure, art house movie or not. It delivers more suspense than whatever contemporary Hitchcock ripoff will be hitting mainstream theaters this summer. With more than 20 theatrical films under his belt, Loach may have lost the ability to surprise us — the film is dependably rife with his passions and politics. However, his work feels unerringly lean and direct, with a concise and un-selfconscious script from his frequent collaborator Paul Laverty.

Cillian Murphy (recently seen as the Scarecrow from Batman Begins) uses his intense and icy young Christopher Walken presence to embody Damien, a young medical student in 1919 who abandons his studies in London to defend his Irish village from the brutal occupation of the British Black and Tans. Despite Loach’s naturalistic technique — the film is shot in scrubby but stunning locations in natural light — he has never been one to shy away from melodrama. Barley pits the idealistic and increasingly militant Damien against his brother, the more conciliatory Teddy (Padraic Delaney).

Ten years ago this film may have felt like a rousing historical fiction, but with the Iraq occupation still raging, Loach’s dedicated band of guerrillas easily persuade us to root for what some would call a terrorist cell. The righteousness felt while defending you hometown from foreign occupiers is part of the lifeblood coursing through the film’s heart, and Loach doesn’t have to draw attention to any parallels to remind us that the callous searches and backroom torture we witness here should give us a good idea of how Iraqi citizens might view U.S. forces.

In England they didn’t worry about such metaphors; the film was attacked as being pro-IRA and played in relatively few theaters. That’s an unfair simplification of Loach’s work; any triumphs this ragtag band achieves are quickly swallowed by trauma and infighting once the 1921 truce is signed. Even with its robust sing-alongs, tearful reunions and Cillian Murphy’s beatific good looks, Loach never lets us forget that war is an event overloaded with tragedies that can never truthfully be romanticized.

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The British press may decry the image of heartless Black and Tan soldiers mistreating the Irish in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, yet the cruel American soldiers who occupy post-plague London in 28 Weeks Later come off little better. How about some unity in the Coalition of the Willing ? The U.S. military is the second major danger facing the British populace in this sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the first being the scourge of our times: ravenous flesh-eating zombies. Unfortunately the always diverting Boyle has retired into executive producer status, leaving the direction to the Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who directed the clever psychic thriller Intacto (2002). Fresnadillo showed such promise that it is sad to watch him forced to mimic Boyle’s grainy original with a scatter-shot script that gnaws on a bunch of different ideas without finding anything juicy.

Recruiting the always-anxious Robert “Begbie” Carlyle from Boyle’s Trainspotting gets things off to a appropriately jittery start, but once the film switches focus to his teen kids, Fresnadillo is too bent on keeping the action charged that he seems to lose interest in making anything out of the story’s opening ambitions. Since 28 Days brought new life to the zombie genre, there has been an impressive batch of sequels and remakes to George Romero’s Dead series. And with Children of Men and V For Vendetta so vividly portraying a new Orwellian London, 28 Weeks Later smells more like the fifth sequel than the first. Within that formula this latest film isn’t awful, just depressingly unimaginative.

My disappointment with 28 Weeks Later seems like bad foreshadowing in a summer everyone is hailing as “the Summer of The Sequel”. Actually for years they’ve all felt like the “Summer of the Sequel” but even that title doesn’t adequately tell the story of just how treadworn the offerings are this year. “The Summer of the Franchise” would be more accurate, with a roster that includes third go-arounds for Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Rush Hour, Oceans 11 and Matt Damon’s Bourne series. Longer-running still is a Die Hard revival that puts Bruce Willis (reeking of Ben-Gay) through the paces for a fourth film, and the fifth chapter in the Harry Potter saga. And what did we do to be blessed with new adventures from The Fantastic Four and Bruce Almighty? Do people still write summer films based on a titillating premise that just happened to spring up in their heads? It’s enough to make me nostalgic for unambitious blockbusters like Independence Day and The Rock if only because shamelessly recycled product tastes slightly fresher than cynically relaunched brand-name entertainment.

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