‘New World’ brave, great 

Malick scores with nature trek again; ‘Underworld’ remake underperforms.

ROGUISH: Farrell as Smith.
  • ROGUISH: Farrell as Smith.

One of the characteristics of Terrence Malick’s rare steps behind the camera as director is the brilliance in the way he brings nature onto the screen.

As he did with “The Thin Red Line,” a war pic set in the wilds of Guadalcanal that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Malick gets up close and personal with the pristine, untouched America in “The New World,” a new history lesson about the Virginia colony of Jamestown — of Pocahontas and her tribe, and of John Smith and John Rolfe and the English settlers.

The film could have been titled “Pocahontas,” as it’s ultimately her story, much of which we know from our grammar school history books: She saves John Smith from being killed by her father’s tribe, she falls for Smith, she mourns when he leaves for England (and he has someone tell her he’s drowned), she meets settler John Rolfe and eventually marries him while still hurting for Smith, and eventually travels to London to meet King James and Queen Anne. Through it all, we know she’s Pocahontas and the credits refer to her as that, though she’s never called that by name in the film. She’s referred to by the settlers as the Indian princess, and in fact her father considers her his favorite of 100 children. Eventually her English servant names her Rebecca at her baptism.

Q’Orianka Kilcher, who was 14 at the time of filming and is the daughter of Quechuan Indian father and a Swiss mother, is perfect in the role. She says more with her radiant smile than some actresses can say in two hours of dialog.

The film is good in so many ways, but especially the way Malick makes the scenery a character in the film, not just a setting. We find ourselves in the middle of the woods, in the middle of tall wild grass, in the middle of a burning Indian village.

But better than that, Malick makes us feel as the Indians and the English settlers must have at their first meeting. It’s as much a new world for the Indians as for the English when their world is turned upside down the day they see ships coming up the river.

Malick treats the first meeting of these peoples like the arrival of alien spaceships. Indians gawk at and touch the English, and the newcomers are just as mystified by what they see and hear, with no way to communicate. In other words, no Indian approached the landing party and said, “How.”

It’s also a new world for Pocahontas when Rolfe takes her to England. Again, as early in the film, her wonderment at tall stone buildings, busy streets, horse-drawn carriages and perfectly manicured hedges and gardens is real.

Malick keeps as tight a rein on Colin Farrell as John Smith. He’s pretty much a rogue, which surely fits Farrell, and maybe not that trustworthy, though he learns through this Indian maiden to trust and love. His relationship forged with her is key in the settlers surviving the first winter in Virginia. This is a far better Farrell than we’ve seen in some of his recent work.

Christian Bale gives a solid if understated performance as John Rolfe. Malick has his three main characters do much of their speaking as narration.

The opening credits note the film “introducing” Kilcher, and we thought back to the same tag given to one Delle Bolton, who was Robert Redford’s Native American love interest in 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson.” The beautiful Bolton did a good job, but alas was never to be seen in film again. While it might be easy to typecast Kilcher into rolls requiring a Native American girl, we feel her striking beauty will find itself filmed again and soon.

Though there are rough battle scenes, they are less bloody than most you see these days. Early on, the film seemed choppy in its editing; the pace is better during the second half. James Horner’s original score is average in an attempt at a period piano style, but the overall music is enhanced with non-period composers Mozart and Wagner.

At two hours and 20 minutes, younger filmgoers who could stand to see an excellent film with a good history lesson might find this too long-winded. At our viewing, at least four people among a small audience left with a half-hour still to go. But those who appreciate all that goes into good filmmaking will want to stick this one out.

— By Jim Harris

Underwhelming ‘Underworld’

Though I’ve got lots of positive things to say about the film’s numerous shots of leather-wrapped Kate Beckinsale — Beckinsale in wet leather, Beckinsale in torn leather, Beckinsale getting her leather peeled off — there isn’t much good to say about “Underworld: Evolution.” Though it might hold some thrills for the hardcore fan of vampire and/or werewolf schlock, it’s mostly just a blue-filtered nightmare of a movie, masquerading as a multi-millennial epic, a sequel to “Underworld.”

Here, Beckinsale continues in her role as Selene, a kung-fu kicking assassin who works for the vampires in a centuries-old war between werewolves (lycans) and bloodsuckers. Also on board again is Michael (Scott Speedman), the hunky vampire-werewolf hybrid that everybody wants to get their hands on so they can create the perfect beast. Both outcast and hunted by their respective clans, Michael and Selene are on the run when they learn about the reawakening of Viktor, the first of all vampires — a guy with fruit bat wings, skin the color of a liver and onion milkshake, and a face only a mother could love. It seems Viktor has a plan to awaken his brother William, who just so happens to be the first of all werewolves, possessing the power to turn humans into lycans with a bite. With his brother’s help, Viktor hopes to start a new race and defeat both the lycans and the vampires at their own game. Selene and Michael, of course, step in to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Though Beckinsale does a pretty good job as lead badass, ultimately “Underworld: Evolution” just feels lopsided, bloody and dreary. Unlike a better dark-n-comic-booky movie from last year — “Batman Begins” — we never really get to know the characters, and therefore their exploits and derring-do finally dissolve into a blur of roundhouse kicks and punches, a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Though fanboys might enjoy it, for the rest of the mortal world, the prudent advice is: Let this one rest in peace.

— By David Koon



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