In so many ways, Max is a modern child. His father is gone. His older sister has outgrown him. His mother, who works late to support the household, is dating a stranger. His teachers are slowly introducing him to the realities of an adult life, offering lessons on tsunamis and supernovas. He has no friends with whom to share his frustrations or figure out his feelings, some combination of betrayal or anger or loneliness. Yet his imagination is strong and provides him with a shelter from the storms of his everyday existence. But when, one evening, his emotions boil over and he runs from his home in a rage, he crosses some imaginary boarder into the realm of the Wild Things.
With that in mind, Where the Wild Things Are isn’t so much a movie for children as it is a movie about children, awash in a complicated sea of emotions that one can only associate with childhood long after becoming an adult. Director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers have crafted an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layered and strangely subversive adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s novel by replicating all the wonder and imagination, all the volatile sadness and emotional uncertainty, of being an innocent kid in a grown-up’s world. The pair seems to grasp that in lacking the vocabulary to fully explain or understand their most complex feelings, children turn inward, drifting into imaginary worlds to make sense of the inexplicable. But all too often, their imaginings are subject to the limits of their own experience, and all the painted vistas and pretended friendships are just as broken and unknowable as the lives they were trying to escape.
When Max crosses an ocean and ends up in the midst of the Wild Things, he quickly proclaims himself the king of this odd assortment of gentle-hearted behemoths. Immediately, Max forms a bond with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini with both a quiet tenderness and boiling anger). He’s trying to figure out his feelings for K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), an approximation of Max’s sister in her desire to break away from the pack, away from the people who love and need her the most. Carol’s emotions are unsteady to say the least, prone to abrupt, violent outbursts, but much like Max himself, there’s a great melancholy about the character – the very same melancholy that hangs above almost every sequence of the film. They are characters confused, wanting to love and be loved, but incapable of adapting to life’s inevitable changes.
The other Wild Things are all individually representative of Max’s feelings or emotions. Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the moodiest of the Wild Things, holds a mirror up to Max’s own indignation, saying in one pivotal sequence, “You don’t get to yell at me when I get mad! It’s your job to understand, to make us feel better,” a universal frustration that we’ve all shared as children. Douglas (Chris Cooper) represents Max’s limited sense of reason while Alexander (Paul Dano) echoes his sense of invisibility. Ira (Forest Whitaker) highlights Max’s desire to make peace, to buffer the conflicts between others and within himself.
But what makes the film work – either because or in spite of its artful, indie spirit – is that each of the creatures feel like actual characters and not simply some collection of walking, talking metaphors. They have their own personalities and arcs, and while the group’s conflicts revolve around the construction of a massive, imaginary fort – as opposed to some epic, Disney-esque adventure – they each get their moment to shine. This is in no small part due to the jaw-dropping effects work required to bring them to life, from the full-scale, beautifully-designed suits to the CG used to animate their facial expressions. WTWTA may mark the most aesthetically dynamic integration of practical and digital effects we’ve seen in quite some time, and if you feel yourself wanting to reach out and give Carol a hug, you’d hardly be alone.
Jonze’s direction is appropriately matter-of-fact, never romanticizing the world of the Wild Things. In fact, by virtue of setting most of the film in a dense forest, the monsters are generally the only visual element of the film that feels particularly fantastic. Yes, there’s a desert landscape and the fort itself is impressively grand in its design, but everything here feels like an extension of the natural world. No CG kingdoms anywhere in sight. And Jonze’s decision to film the world with a minimized sense of wonder, focusing instead on the size of things relative to Max – the monsters pose a constant threat of accidental harm – ultimately keeps the focus on Max and his relationships.
Overall, Where the Wild Things Are is a tremendously moving and intelligent film, so much so that it risks alienating audiences who are expecting a more typical adventure. There is humor here, and joy, and amazement, but for every beat of whimsy, there’s one of sadness or confusion. So it’ll be up to the age and maturity of the kids in the audience whether they’ll ultimately “get” all of what the film is aiming at. That said, if you take the film for what it is, you’ll discover a complex and extraordinary accomplishment, as moving as it is odd. A true Wild Thing in itself.
Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directorial debut in Whip It!.
Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross (who also scripted), Whip It marks the feature film directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. The dramedy follows teenager Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who is looking for a way out of her dead-end hometown of Bodeen, Texas. Bliss’ well-meaning but domineering mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is convinced that her daughter’s only ticket out is to win the local Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant, but Bliss yearns for something other than her mom’s debutante dreams or working as a waitress at the Oink Joint.
Bliss discovers an alternate route to liberation and happiness when she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak off to Austin. There they attend a women’s roller derby where the teams — such as the Hurl Scouts and their arch-enemies, the Holy Rollers — inspire Bliss with their punkish attitudes and raucous, brutal antics. Convinced that she’s found her true calling in this bloodsport, Bliss lies to her parents about where she’s going and lies to the Hurl Scouts about her age so that she can attend tryouts.
Bliss joins the Hurl Scouts, adopting the moniker of “Babe Ruthless.” Her tough teammates include Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Death Proof’s Zoe Bell), and Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor). Their beleaguered coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) vainly tries to teach them the value of following his game plan so that maybe they could actually win once in awhile. The seemingly indomitable Holy Rollers are led by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), who seems to have finally met her match in Babe Ruthless. By following Razor’s playbook, Babe helps lead the Hurl Scouts to a string of underdog victories. (Jimmy Fallon appears as the roller derby’s ringside announcer.) Meanwhile, Bliss also falls for Oliver (Landon Pigg), a local singer a few years her senior. But how long can Bliss continue with her dual identity and deceptions before they threaten to destroy her relationships and tenuous hold on her future?
Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directing debut with Whip It, delivering a familiar but audience-friendly tale with enough sincerity, warmth and skill to make even the most hard-bitten cynic overlook the movie’s litany of cliches and get a kick (literally, for many of the characters) out of seeing a young girl’s coming-of-age story married with a rough and tumble sports flick. With over 25 years experience as an actor, Barrymore knows how to draw finely tuned performances out of her stellar cast, and that more than anything else is what makes her film work so well. As for Page, following her acclaimed performances as shrewd youths in Hard Candy and Juno, it was refreshing to see her portray a teenager who isn’t quite so overbearingly precocious.
Page plays Bliss as a real teenage girl, quick-witted but also vulnerable and fallible. Bliss largely treats those in her life well, but she is, as so many teens are, self-centered. And why not? Her domineering mother only wants her to relive her youthful dreams … or does she? Harden, thanks to the script, doesn’t demonize Brooke; she is, like Page’s Bliss, a real person, a stern but sympathetic parent who isn’t as wrong as her daughter would like to believe. There are several moving scenes between them, with Bliss’ coming home/kitchen scene being particularly nuanced and touching. That scene will likely be the “Oscar clip” should either Page or Harden snag a nomination.
Wiig and Lewis are also standouts, with the former showing a dramatic prowess here that suggests a range lacking in many other SNLers, past and present. It’s a performance that bodes well for her future on the big screen. As for Lewis, it doesn’t seem all that long ago when she was the young Oscar nominee playing the precocious teen; her scenes with Ellen Page have an edgy undercurrent to them, as if we’re witnessing the passing of a torch, with the elder recognizing themselves in their young counterpart even as they demand their respect. Meanwhile, Daniel Stern — where the hell has he been for the last decade? — makes a minor comeback as Bliss’ beer-chuggin’ dad. His presence calls to mind his past coming-of-age projects The Wonder Years and Breaking Away.
Just as Yoda revealed that there was another Skywalker, Drew Barrymore likewise announces the existence of another Wilson brother. Andrew Wilson is an eerie amalgam of both of his more famous brothers, mixing Owen’s stoner affability with Luke’s sensitivity and intelligence. Less effective is Landon Pigg as Bliss’ first love. While Barrymore and Cross craft the relationship with tenderness, there is a discernible lack of chemistry between Page and Pigg that renders this subplot only intermittently effective. It’s the only relationship in the movie that feels phony, but at least the final scene between them delivers. Bliss’ relationship with Pash fares better, and rings truer than most teenage friendships do in movies.
Barrymore also acquits herself well in the roller derby scenes, making them visceral and exhilarating even though they are all largely staged the same way each time. She makes you feel every elbow and punch thrown, every body check and nasty spill. These scenes put a fresh spin on the over-used (and now commercially co-opted) term “girl power.” If you can imagine Slap Shot with chicks then you get an idea of what Whip It is going for in its raucous roller derby sequences. That there is a sweet story and genuine characters one can care about when the skating stops makes Whip It one of the year’s most pleasant surprises at the movies.
Based on Judi and Ron Barrett’s 1978 children’s book of the same name, the CG-animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs follows aspiring inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) whose latest machine first brings joy to, and then later wreaks havoc on, his beleaguered island community.
The island of Swallow Falls was once the home of the sardine industry — made famous by their native pitchman, or infant, “Baby” Brent (voiced as a has-been adult by Andy Samberg) — until the world realized it didn’t like sardines. Isolated from the rest of the world, the now economically depressed community struggles to survive, and must use sardines in everything they eat. Flint — whose sole companion and “colleague” is the “talking” monkey Steve (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) — wants to change all that with his latest invention: a machine that can turn water into any kind of food imaginable. (The array of food that rains down will undoubtedly leave viewers craving a cheeseburger in the worst way.)
Much to his surprise, and that of visiting weathergirl and potential love interest Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), Flint’s gizmo actually works! Soon everything from burgers and hot dogs to steaks and ice cream starts raining down on the amazed residents of Swallow Falls. Flint goes from outcast to local hero and community savior, but all he really wants is the respect of his laconic tackle shop owner dad (James Caan) and the love of Sam. But when Flint’s great invention threatens to destroy Swallow Falls, he and Sam must set things right.
The lackluster marketing campaign led me to think this was yet another CG-animated kid’s movie with a sappy story and potty humor that only children could enjoy. I hadn’t read the book as a kid — so far the only person I’ve met who has read it is Andy Samberg — so I went in with zero expectations and was overwhelmed by this thoroughly enjoyable movie. Boasting smart, subversive humor and some of the most impressive 3-D yet seen in an animated feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a surprisingly clever and highly entertaining comedy. The writing and direction of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (best known for exec producing the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) is sharp and engaging, chock full of references to everything from first-person shooter games to Steven Spielberg movies and The Twilight Zone.
There’s malevolent glee to be had in an ice cream snowball fight where no child is safe, or a monkey’s life-or-death battle with a giant Gummy Bear. There’s plenty of verbal wit as well as visual gags, with the voice cast succeeding in making their characters alive and fun. Hader and Faris are the standouts as two nerds who strive to be taken seriously, but Samberg and Bruce Campbell (as the gluttonous, scheming mayor) have plenty of memorable moments. The voice cast also includes Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, and Will Forte.
The filmmakers aren’t afraid to push the edge with either the humor or the animation. The movie features a number of splashy, colorful set-pieces, including an avalanche of food that threatens to destroy Swallow Falls and the heroes’ climactic battle set against a backdrop of deadly peanut brittle stalactites. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is silly enough for kids to enjoy, while adults will appreciate the movie’s charmingly oddball characters, sly wit and anarchistic streak. After suffering through a largely bland crop of summer movies, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was exactly the kind of out-of-left field surprise gem you hoped that autumn would bring. Just be sure to catch it in 3-D.
Have you ever told a lie, that lead to another lie, that lead to a deception, circling back on itself until you’ve landed in the center of a small, intricately woven web of falsity? Usually, these moments compound quickly, in a blur of deceit, and when the dam finally breaks, you’re left exposed and embarrassed – half by the truth you didn’t want told and half by your ridiculous inability to tell it. Well, try to maintain that endless series of lies for more than a decade and you’ll perhaps feel something like whatever Mark Whitacre must have felt while leading the FBI into a corporate price-fixing investigation entirely of his own design.
Such is Steven Soderbergh’s, The Informant!
A mid-level executive at a corporation called ADM, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) works to ensure the continued good sales of the company’s popular food additives, but when a mishap in the lab begins to cost the company significant amounts of money and threatens Whitacre’s job, the mustachioed quasi-Everyman simply invents, out of thin air, a Japanese corporate blackmailer to whom he assigns the blame. Enter the FBI, who might easily have caught on to Whitacre’s deception had he not, in turn, spun yet another series of lies which propelled him into being the government’s key witness and undercover informant in a massive corporate conspiracy case. And like all good con-jobs, Whitacre built his lies upon half-truths. There was, indeed, a price-fixing scheme in place, but the laughable audacity with which Whitacre lead investigators through the ranks, deflecting attention from his own involvement – and subsequent embezzlement – is worthy of a standing ovation.
The Informant! is a one-man show, carried completely by the strength of Damon’s tremendously effective performance. Whitacre, for all intents and purposes, should be a hugely unlikeable guy, but Damon lends the character a sense of kamikaze bravado and wide-eyed whimsy that makes it impossible not to feel at least slightly sympathetic toward him. From the paunchy mid-section to the ridiculous hairpiece, Whitacre seems like the kind of guy trying desperately to move up and be taken seriously in the corporate world. Despite the fact that the film just barely touches upon his back-story, one imagines him to have been the atypical nerd, picked-on and ridiculed for much of his life, eventually realizing that his only real talent is the ability to weave stories and manipulate people. It feels, in a sense, like the comical, white-collar version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, about a marginalized character who, in an effort to appear like a more substantial, important person, builds a pyramid of lies that eventually leads to his own tragi-comic downfall.
But then something happens: an FBI raid and a revelation about Whitacre that drains the audience of any remaining sympathy they might have developed for the man. He becomes, over the course of the film’s burdensome third act, little more than a thief and a liar. The joke wears thin; the deceit becomes tedious. And while the turn may be an intentional attempt to demonstrate how easily these lies keep coming, yet how heavily they weigh, it becomes equally frustrating for the audience, who’ve been laughing along steadily for 90 minutes and are eventually handed, in the last 30, a rather uninvolving, if marginally quirky, drama.
Soderbergh’s direction is, of course, incredibly confident and until that meandering third act, he balances both character and comedy to near perfection. For a film about corporate America and price-fixing, The Informant! is never boring, due in large part to the supporting cast that Soderberg has amassed. Interestingly, he chooses to cast comedians in rather straightforward side-roles – Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Dick Smothers and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale being among the view. The Soup’s Joel McHale has perhaps the largest of these roles as one of Whitacre’s two FBI handlers, the other being Scott Bakula, who likely delivers more laughs than his comedian counterpart.
Overall, The Informant! starts out strong and burns out just shy of the finish line, but Soderbergh’s direction and Damon’s performance are enough to make this a wildly watchable character study that’ll keep you laughing through much of the runtime. While it might not be a masterpiece, it’s certainly worthy of an evening at the theater. We promise. After all, we’d never lie to you.
Remember the early days of IMAX? Back when there were only three or four theaters, scattered across the major cities, each with some hour-long 3-D extravaganza? Remember how those movies were all some variation on two kids traveling back in time to the Paleolithic era, complete with sweeping shots of some breath-taking vista (like Africa by way of New Mexico) and the all-too-frequent T-Rex attack? Sure, the kids couldn’t act and the movie wasn’t so much a story as an excuse for the 3-D, but the presentation was decent, the format was inventive and the massive, face-sized glasses ensured that a sufficient amount of stuff leapt out at you across the screen.
I feel much the same way about The Final Destination. It’s not really a movie, or rather, it’s not a real movie, but it’s a hugely entertaining carnival ride of elaborate, three-dimensional bloodletting. It’s difficult to say whether the filmmakers took the 3-D format as permission to eschew things like story and performance, but beyond the non-existent narrative and uninspired acting, the kills are perfectly orchestrated to provide some gut-wrenching, laugh-inducing gore, all of which spatters back on the audience via the 3-D eyewear.
The story assumes that you know the drill by now. A bunch of attractive teenagers survive some horrible accident thanks to a random, psychic premonition only to be hunted down by the unstoppable force of Death which they so ironically avoided. The kind of mythology that used to take an entire movie to figure out is now communicated by a character saying, “We stayed up all night Googling death and premonitions and it works like this…” The Final Destination begins with a group of friends at a NASCAR event, one of whom, Nick, has the obligatory vision of a crash so implausibly epic that it causes a series of explosions resulting in the deaths of dozens by crushing, slicing, burning, impaling and decapitation by errant tire. And, of course, all of this happens through some extraordinarily in-your-face 3-D. The vision ends, the group runs out, taking a few other survivors with them, and the next 80 minutes is spent re-killing them in dynamic, though somewhat repetitive ways.
Where the first two movies, and to some degree the third, tried to expand upon the initial concept, adding layers of mythology and upping the cinematic ante, this film is content to give viewers more of the same, though in a way they’ve yet to experience. Whether this is enough for you depends entirely on your tastes, and while this critic would have liked to see the series explore a few of the bigger questions or attempt something different with the set-up, there’s certainly enough popcorn entertainment here to warrant the price of admission.
Director David R. Ellis returns from having crafted the second and most well-balanced chapter in the series – at least with regard to its kill-to-story ratio – but seems to struggle a bit with the execution. The balance is absolutely in favor of over-the-top, mindless fun, which is, for the most part, perfectly acceptable by Final Destination standards, but the kills aren’t nearly as inventive as in past films. The Rube Goldberg, mousetrap-esque nature of Death’s design was always the most interesting element of the series, but with this outing, one might as well put a counter at the bottom of the screen to clock the number of spilt liquids and gasoline trails that contribute to the death of our main cast. There are one or two memorable deaths – one involving a pool, the other an escalator – but there are an equal number of moments that borrow openly from past chapters, including the silent vehicle that strikes a joyous survivor or the aforementioned gasoline trails that always bend toward the fire. Were it not for the 3-D, which really makes each death play a bit better than it might have otherwise, the movie might easily have ranked as the least fulfilling of the series. But seen in the intended format and in the intended spirit, The Final Destination trumps the last chapter to rank as the franchise’s third-best entry.
While we suspect that this isn’t truly the final destination, we certainly hope that the next in the series will find some new creative ground or thematic area to explore. Because let’s face it, there’s only so much that one can do with stuff falling on other stuff that eventually ends up impaling somebody.
For a filmmaker who’s known for making ultra-violent genre fare, Robert Rodriguez has never failed to balance his cinematic machismo with his softer, more kid-friendly role as a father, taking time out between bloodbaths to create something for both his family and ours. Shorts is perhaps Rodriguez’s best and most inspired young-adult film since the original Spy Kids. Whether this is faint praise or a legitimate compliment is entirely up to your taste, and quite possibly your age, but there’s little doubt that this sci-fi fairy tale is the perfect piece of back-to-school entertainment for children and their young-at-heart parents.
The set-up is relatively simple. A magical wishing rock falls into the center of a residential community built around a super-advanced technology company responsible for the creation of the “black box,” a device which can become, essentially, any other electronic device you need it to be. In an interconnecting series of – you guessed it — shorts, Rodriguez spotlights four groups of neighbors whose wishes produce what one might best describe as shenanigans.
The first follows young Toe Thompson – ignored by his distant, work-addicted parents and bullied by the daughter of his parents’ boss, Helvetica Black – as he wishes for friends who appear as troublesome, super-powered, miniature alien spacecraft. The second story follows a group of three children whose wishes create walking alligators, giant pterodactyls, venomous snakes and one incredibly smart, telepathic baby. The third chapter focuses on super-scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), his son and the family tutor (Toe’s sister Stacey, played here by Kat Dennings), as young “Nose” Noseworthy accidently mutates a booger into a giant, flesh-eating monster. The fourth section finds Toe’s parents wishing to be closer and suddenly being joined, quite literally, at the hip. The fifth and final chapter illustrates how all the madness comes together as the company’s CEO, Cole Black, wishes himself into a massive, unstoppable, all-powerful robot.
The real success of the film is in the tone it strikes. It’s colorful, but not overly cartoonish; it’s good, silly fun, but it never panders; it’s aimed at children, yet it has enough maturity to entertain the adults. It is, in a sense, the kind of bed-time story a parent might make up with their children, incorporating the enthusiastic suggestions shouted from beneath the covers. The presentation of the film as a set of short movies is fun and inspired – and certainly on DVD kids will watch and re-watch their favorite chapters – but it’s not, critically speaking, entirely necessary. Shifting around the timeline and showing how one event leads up to something you’ve already seen is a clever invention, but the story never really gains anything from the structure. That said, given the film in question, if an idea is fun, it has a place here within the craziness, regardless of the questions or criticisms that might apply to more straightforward movies.
Rodriguez doesn’t really flex the visual style here that we’ve seen in his higher-budget productions, but he manages a narrative and tonal juggling act that’s no less impressive for the film’s being aimed at younger audiences. The effects are surprisingly well rendered and while, for this critic, the booger-monster seemed a bit sillier than the rest of the film, each of the wild creations – from walking reptiles to five-story mechanical behemoths – look relatively respectable.
Overall, when a critic can see a film that’s meant for children in a child-less room filled with fellow film critics and still have a good time, that’s absolutely a credit to the filmmaker and his cast. Adults will no doubt be forced to find their inner child to enjoy the movie, but one wouldn’t suppose they’d be flocking to theatres without children of their own – children who will no doubt have a blast making their way through Shorts.
IGN.com give District 9 5 out 5 stars. Doesn’t get much better than that. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do yourself a favour and see it. Now either read the review or watch the video:
In truth, there is a downside to what we do here. In this online age of previews, reviews, trailers, clips, interviews, blogs and podcasts, we have traded the mystery of movies for the knowledge of their industry. Remember back to the pre-Web days, when trailers were merely 60-second edits of imagery and plot, when the darkness of a movie theater concealed the promise of some uncertain journey. This is how I saw District 9, having glimpsed nothing but a vague teaser trailer, having read no rumors, having scanned or examined or pondered not one single image. And whether this was the result of some poorly-executed marketing campaign or a brilliant strategy of secrecy, it was the best and most appropriate way to see it.
So let’s begin at the ending, starting with that final paragraph, the general summary which renders our verdict with nary a spoiler to be found. Read on for more if you choose, or come back after having seen the movie fresh, so long as you see it at all:
District 9 is a remarkable work and a truly benchmark science fiction film. Offering an expert balance of narrative, character, sub-text, action, effects and performance, Neill Blomkamp’s cinematic debut is the film that fans have been waiting years (or perhaps even decades) for. There is scale here, both grand and intimate. Its heroes are distinctive; it’s setting unique. Its action is spectacular and its drama is equal parts heartfelt and terrifying. Most importantly, it feels new. There is a mind at work in Blomkamp and District 9 is that rare celebration of science fiction that will undoubtedly help define the genre for years to come.
When a derelict alien spacecraft drifts into the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, the world is stunned to find the remains of a dying alien population aboard. Brought down into a facility called District 9, the Prawns – as the humans refer to them – have had nearly 20 years to integrate into society, but racism and prejudice against the impoverished, shanty-town aliens steadily increases. The corporation MNU is developed to handle the human-alien relations and it is during an unprecedented attempt to relocate the more than one million alien residents that Wikus – little more than an Everyman pencil-pusher – is unwittingly made the key to the human’s ability to utilize the aliens’ DNA-encoded weaponry. On the run with an alien named Christopher Johnson, Wikus must find a way to make things right for both himself and the Prawns so that both species, alien and human alike, can return home.
District 9 is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg — the short which got the attention of producer Peter Jackson and Blomkamp subsequently attached to the long-abandoned adaptation of Halo. Using the same documentary-style approach to the material, District 9 is incredibly grounded, making grand science fiction feel tremendously real. This is partly due to the fact that the special effects in the film are taken almost for granted. The massive alien ship hangs in the sky above the city like an afterthought, hazy and out of focus through the constantly shifting lens of the camera. The aliens – a triumph of computer animation and digital character work – feel fully a part of the universe, blurring the line between CG creations and human performers, the standout of which is Wikus himself, Sharlto Copley.
With no prior acting experience, Copley creates a wholly fascinating character. Just promoted by his father-in-law who runs MNU, Wikus wants nothing more than to get ahead, kissing ass and acting far more authoritative than his status allows. In fact, he’s relatively unlikeable. He’s a white-collar nobody, inconsequential to both the characters and the audience. And that Copley is able to transition Wikus into an increasingly sympathetic character as the film continues – still flawed, still evolving – is a testament to the actor’s raw talent. Equally impressive is Wikus’ growing bond with Christopher, demanding that Copley create a dynamic relationship with little more than thin air, a relationship without which the film simply doesn’t work. We’ve seen this attempted before in Jackson’s own films, with Gollum or King Kong, but never has it worked so well and to such emotional effect.
Needless to say, however, the genre requires some degree of action, and Blomkamp absolutely delivers. While District 9 begins as a character piece, exploring and growing this new alien-human world, the second half features some stunning action pieces. The alien weaponry which becomes such a driving force to the story is put on brilliant display with some disastrous effects to the human anatomy. This film definitely earns its R-rating once the fighting begins, and Blomkamp knows how to layer the film with bigger and bigger moments without completely disengaging from the reality he so successfully creates. For all the explosions, all the gore, all the lasers and giant, fully-equipped mech-suits, it all feels, oddly enough, completely authentic and totally plausible.
The best pieces of genre filmmaking – be they horror or sci-fi or fantasy – begin with an idea, some human and universal notion that audiences can take with them throughout the journey, either consciously or unconsciously. Sadly, this is so often lacking in most modern-day fare, and District 9 is almost wholly unique this year in combining fantastic action with thoughtful, narrative filmmaking. In the mainstream, there’s no reason this film should exist. Set in South Africa, no big stars, sub-titled alien dialogue, unlikely heroes, an unpolished documentary approach… And yet, the film works so well because of not in spite of all of that.
But herein lies the rub. The trouble with giving this film the five stars we’ve elected to give it is simply that it elevates expectations; it drives people to know more, filling their cinematic bellies before the main course even begins. Know only that the movie is good, it is important, it is strongly made. Let words like “great” and “brilliant” and “genre-defining” linger after the credits have rolled. Go to the film as empty as you can, and believe us, you’ll leave satisfied, and with the urge to book a return trip to District 9.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front – The Time Traveler’s Wife is first and foremost a love story. Author Audrey Niffenegger put it all right there in the title of the book on which the film is based. If it were a more intellectual or scientific exploration of the theories of temporal displacement, it would have been called The Time Traveler (and it would have been written by somebody else). But, as the title indicates, there are two protagonists in this story. The well-worn plot device of time travel is used as a metaphor for the emotional distance that often creeps into even the most solid of long-term relationships. The film asks the audience to engage with the story and characters using their hearts, not their brains. If you know that going in, you’ll undoubtedly be able to enjoy the film more for what it is.
The star-crossed lovers in question are Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams) and Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana). Henry, a research librarian, was born with a genetic anomaly, later dubbed Chrono-Displacement, which causes him to slip away from the present into the past or future. He can’t control where or when he goes, and his clothes and personal belongings don’t travel with him. So he often finds himself in compromising positions which require him to run, steal, fight and somehow survive until he’s pulled back to the present. One afternoon in the library he runs into Claire, an artist who not only knows everything about him, but tells him she’s been in love with him all her life.
Although none of this has happened yet for Henry at this point in his life, Claire first met him when she was six years-old. He continued visiting her at different points throughout her childhood, and she has grown up knowing that one day she’ll be his wife. By the time they meet in the library, although he doesn’t know her, she’s been waiting for that moment for years. Waiting will continue to be a theme for Claire as their relationship grows and develops into cohabitation, then marriage. His unannounced departures and arrivals begin to wear on her, as does a series of miscarriages which prevent her from carrying his child to full term. It turns out that happily ever after is not as simple as it may have once seemed, for both Henry and Claire.
The film does touch on the conflict between destiny and free will, but only in the most superficial ways. In this world, the future is seemingly predetermined. Henry explains to Claire that he’s never been able to change anything, including his own mother’s death in an automobile accident. There’s a lot of explaining going on in this film, actually. The old writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell” seems to have been thrown out the window here in favor of dialogue describing action we never get to see (like Henry’s attempts to save his mother). A few more scenes and a little less dialogue would have gone a long way towards furthering the emotional resonance of the film.
To be fair, a big part of that may have been lost in the tricky translation of the book to the screen. It’s much easier to set up details like time, place and age in a novel. In the film, the audience is left to guess and fill in the blanks for themselves much of the time, which can make for a disjointed and confusing narrative. And this brings us to the part of the review that applies to those who read and loved the book. Fans of Niffenegger’s version would be well advised to bear in mind that the film takes a few liberties with the source material, as most films do. It glosses over some of the big moments in Claire and Henry’s history, makes only a passing reference to others and leaves a few things out entirely. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin does his best to translate the spirit of the book, though, with the same pathos he put into the supernatural romance Ghost.
Aiding in that emotional journey are McAdams and Bana, who make for a believable couple. McAdams in particular does a fine job of portraying Claire’s wide emotional arc, from the initial blush of infatuated youth to the tired exasperation of a long-suffering wife. Bana is more steady and reserved as Henry, which is appropriate for the character, but it makes it more difficult to identify with him. Ron Livingston brings some levity to the film as Gomez, a close friend who discovers Henry’s secret in a startling way. The other standout in the supporting cast is Arliss Howard as Henry’s father, whose deep sadness at the loss of his wife and conflicted feelings about his son’s condition are palpable.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the ending, which felt superfluous and tacked on. It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I found out it was, in fact, tacked on after test audiences responded negatively to the original ending. It wouldn’t be the first time a studio has intervened, but it says more about director Robert Schwentke’s faith in his own storytelling that he allowed the film to be altered in this way. Without giving anything away, the new version betrays the pathos and emotional impact it would otherwise have with a coda that adds nothing to the story. This is perhaps the biggest affront to Niffenegger’s novel, but thankfully it isn’t representative of the adaptation as a whole.
Thankfully, The Time Traveler’s Wife is not at all the frothy romance the marketing campaign has made it out to be. The presence of McAdams may bring to mind comparisons to The Notebook and similar sappy, manipulative fare, but that’s perhaps a bit unfair. Yes, this is a love story, but one that doesn’t pull its punches or hesitate to portray romance as a difficult, painful and all-too-fleeting thing.
It’s not particularly close-minded or inaccurate to describe the Japanese approach to animation as somehow weird — strangely, beautifully, playfully, colorfully, sometimes violently weird. This is true at least in as much as we can say as Americans, watching from our country half-way across the globe, and not at all a judgment considering how wonderfully weird it can be. But there are few Japanese filmmakers, if any, who have applied this style in a more universally heartwarming fashion than Hayao Miyazaki. The creator of such cross-over classics as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki has charmed audiences in Japan for decades with his brilliantly drawn and dream-like fables.
To describe the story of his latest creation Ponyo is deceptively simple: A young boy name Suske discovers a colorfish fish, Ponyo, who magically becomes human. But when her desire to stay with Suske threatens the very balance of nature, their friendship must be tested before things can be set right. At its most basic level, this simple description sounds normal enough, though it leaves out details like the following: Ponyo only becomes human after tasting Suske’s blood; Ponyo’s father is an undersea wizard who looks like 1970s David Bowie; her mother is Mother Nature herself; Ponyo is a fish who loves ham sandwiches; the sea pursues Ponyo in the shape of giant whales made of water; Ponyo’s meddling causes the moon to approach the Earth and raise the tides; Suske’s mother works at a retirement home with some rather bizarre residents; a giant flood brings creatures from the age of the dinosaurs back to the surface.
Ponyo may indeed be Miyazaki’s most narratively odd movie in quite some time – which is saying something, to be sure – but its design and tone are that of a child’s bedtime story. The world of Ponyo is one seen through a child’s eyes, operating by a child’s rule, so logic be damned in favor of emotion and spectacle. Color is king here, painting every edge of the world, both above and below the surface of the sea. Ocean blues and Ponyo’s pink scales offset the lush greenery of the island and its myriad of multi-colored flowers and foliage. But most importantly, the relationship between Ponyo and Suske, made of the boundless love and affection that children can share for one another, truly drives the film. Every adventure, every sequence, every magical moment is precipitated by their desire to stay together and their utter willingness to believe that magic is not only possible, but real.
The American voice cast leaves a little to be desired, offering that quasi-overacted quality to the English dubbing, though thankfully the children work wonderfully. This isn’t to say that they may not be overacting as well, but only to say that it makes sense that children might react to the world with that broad, matter-of-fact delivery. The cast includes Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Suske’s mother and father, as well as Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s mythical parents. But the real star here is the visuals, the colorful, lush hand-drawn animation that makes Miyazaki films such a feast for the senses. We wouldn’t be so foolish as to say it’s his best film to date, but Ponyo might just be his most imaginative, vibrant and family friendly tale in quite some time.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrive in theaters, July 15 and you can read the review below.
There are two faces to the story of Harry Potter. The first is that of a young boy forced into the wondrous and oftentimes dark world of wizardry in order to destroy the evil Lord Voldevort who had long-ago murdered his parents. This is the face that bears the saga’s many adventures – magical tournaments and enchanted creatures, harrowing broomstick battles and spells exchanged like gunfire. It is also the face of mystery and intrigue – of secret sects both light and dark, of ministries of magic and old vendettas made new. Then there is the second face – the one of a boy growing slowly and awkwardly into manhood with friends who will prove to be the greatest of his life. It is the face of a boy becoming aware of his abilities and weaknesses, developing a passion for Potions or sports, discovering confidence and virtue, romance and responsibility. It is a face we’ve all worn, and while those of us who’ve followed Harry Potter on his seven-story adventure might never know the joys of conjuring a Patronus or casting some spectacular spell, we’ve all known the joyous — and occasionally painful — experience of growing up.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince knows this, too…
The sixth film in the franchise, Half-Blood Prince finds Harry thrust into a world that has finally, and stubbornly, accepted the return of Voldemort, a world in which Voldemort himself has doubled the efforts of his minions to rid Hogwarts of his many enemies there. The danger, as it does from book to book and film to film, has increased exponentially, and the secret to defeating this constant threat may just exist in a forgotten memory. Tasked by Dumbledore, Harry must befriend the newest addition to the Hogwarts staff, Professor Slughorn, and retrieve this long-lost recollection about a pivotal moment shared with a young Tom Riddle, then a student at the school. A recollection which will, believes Dumbledore, offer the key to the Dark Lord’s ultimate plan. Meanwhile, Snape’s suspicious activities, Draco’s scheming and frequent attacks by Bellatrix and her fellow Death Eaters all point to the inevitable final confrontation which many of you, no doubt, have experienced in the seventh and final book.
But if Half-Blood Prince is really about anything, it’s about that singular turning point into adulthood. It’s about the year in which Harry, Ron and Hermione discover romance as something to be embraced rather than embarrassed by…It’s the year in which each character finally seems to come into their own, and after two films heavy in plot and effects-laden action, we’re offered a portion of the story devoted to the development of the characters we’ve truly grown to love. It’s a testament to the brilliant balance of tones struck by director David Yates that the movie is able to shift between dark, somber moments in which characters must ultimately decide their loyalties and lighthearted, carefree exchanges between boys who are, much to their own chagrin, desperately in love with girls.
Yates is aided substantially by a set of actors whose performances continue to get better with each film, as well as a script that brings some of the more supporting characters to the forefront for a refreshing change of dynamics. The re-emergence of Draco and Ginny Weasley underscores both sides of the Harry Potter coin, forwarding the plot while demanding that Harry develop further as a character, never growing stagnant, both confronting enemies and admitting his growing affections. Ron’s interplay with Hermione in the film is also quite moving, allowing for equal instances of comedy and drama. And lastly, Jim Broadbent’s turn as the absent-minded, socialite Professor Slughorn is perhaps the best of the cameos we’ve seen to date – creating an immensely likeable and sympathetic character out of material that might easily have been more disagreeable in less capable hands.
The film’s only real weakness is one inherent to the series itself – that in trying to fill a school-year’s worth of time, most of what occurs in the movie simply feels like filler for the final few minutes. The “Thing That Happens at the End” – an event which we surely won’t spoil for you here – is, in a real sense, the only thing that actually happens, at least in as much as it relates to the continuing story of Harry’s battle against Voldemort. The events of Order of the Phoenix feel almost inconsequential here – just as the tournament in Goblet of Fire felt like something to puff up the page-count before Voldemort could re-appear in the final sequence. Thankfully, the character work is so finely developed in this outing that each of those concerns is quite easily forgiven amidst all the first-rate performances and overall impressive filmmaking. Readers should note, however, that the film cuts down substantially on the Voldemort flashbacks and never does explain the significance of the “Half-Blood Prince” — an odd omission, considering the title — but this is never to the detriment of the film itself.
That said, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a refreshing change of pace from the dynamic set pieces and wizarding intrigue of the last two films, offering up a heartfelt and surprisingly character-driven chapter in the epic saga of Harry vs. Voldemort. It is without a doubt among the very best in the cinematic series thusfar, second perhaps only to Azkaban, which to this critic offered the most skillful and well-executed balance of narrative and character, of momentum and pause, with never a beat of action too far from some honest and human exchange. Half-Blood Prince is a shockingly intimate film, propelled forward by its engaging characters into a few scattered moments of magical mayhem, yet never bores and never slows despite its insistence on following our heroes into their rapidly-approaching adulthood. It is, in a sense, the breath before the battle, setting up viewers for the epic confrontation to come – a battle so dark and so expansive that it’ll take two films to tell the entire story – and if the finale is conjured with all the drama and heart of this chapter, surely any reason to linger at Hogwarts a little longer will leave audiences shouting, “Abracadabra.”