Astro Boy is proof that Pixar has virtually ruined CG animated filmmaking for its competition. In the midst of sophisticated, multi-layered releases such as Up or WALL.E, Ratatouille, it’s easy to look at a basic, well-executed, family-friendly adventure and somehow think less of it. Astro Boy, for example, is not The Incredibles, nor is it trying to be. Rather, it’s a surface level bit of animated entertainment that’s certain to please children while preventing the parents from nodding off in their seats. It aims unabashedly for the adventurous youngsters in the audience and succeeds in delivering a fun, raucous, visually polished romp through a colorful sci-fi landscape. Nothing more, nothing less.
That said, the film doesn’t stray too far from the relative darkness of its source material. The story of Astro Boy’s creation remains generally the same: The brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) and his colleague Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) have extracted the power of both red and blue matter – blue representing positive energy and red, of course, representing evil. But when General Stone (Donald Sutherland) seizes the red energy source to power his new unstoppable war machine, Tenma’s son is caught in the crossfire and killed. Yes, killed. Not fake-killed or quasi-killed, but real, 100 percent, no-coming-back dead. And so Tenma, in his grief, creates a robotic replica of his son, Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore), equipping him with unlimited defenses, powered by the blue energy, and downloads the boy’s consciousness into the robot copy.
For all intents and purposes, Astro believes himself to be human, but Tenma quickly learns that a robot is no replacement for a son, and dismisses the boy in his confusion. Sent out into the wasteland below the city, Astro meets a group of orphans supervised by former scientist Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). Among them is Cora (Kristen Bell), a tough pre-teen with a grudge against robots. Hunted by General Stone for the blue energy source within him, Astro must come to terms with his robotic self and prove to Tenma, Cora and the world that despite being a machine, he’s equally as human.
Astro Boy deals with some pretty heavy themes – the death of a child, rejection, robot slavery, warmongering politicians – and if it fails on any real cinematic level, it’s in choosing not to explore these notions in a more meaningful way. The colorful animation and fast-paced action washes over the more complex emotional core of the film, never taking the time to explain these issues to the younger viewers and failing to address them dramatically enough to move the adults in the theater. That said, the very same colorful animation and fast-paced action are both refreshingly executed, so if your kid can either grasp the heavier themes or simply choose to ignore them, there’s a lot of sci-fi spectacle to keep them entertained.
As Astro Boy becomes increasingly aware of his powers and General Stone closes in on him and his newfound family of friends, the action escalates into some fairly impressive sequences of Astro battling giant, city-destorying robots. Meanwhile, the presentation itself is very soft, very clean, offering a stylized look that combines the previous iterations of the series with the polish of CG animation. The vocal performances are all passable, though Cage seems terribly miscast as Tenma, turning in a performance that ultimately fails to capture the character’s struggle. Highmore gives Astro a kind of “golly gee” innocence that makes the boy considerably more affable and Bell’s Cora is a suitable friend-slash-potential love interest.
Overall, Astro Boy is a reasonable, if not perfect, adaptation of the popular franchise that’ll no doubt captivate the kiddies if they can push past some of the darker themes into the vivid, sci-fi action.
Astro Boy is now playing in theater near you. Click HERE to read the synopsis and watch the trailer.
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.
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.
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.
Not quite haute cuisine, but a tasty dish nevertheless thanks to Streep.
Filmmaker Nora Ephron transports viewers to the Paris of the 1950s and the New York City of this decade in her tale of two true stories Julie & Julia. Combining the biographies Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, Ephron’s Julie & Julia follows cooking icon Julia Child (flamboyantly, lovingly played by Meryl Streep) in her years in postwar France as she becomes the celebrated chef and author we remember today. The secondary storyline follows Julie Powell (Amy Adams), as she seeks an outlet during her soul-crushing time in New York after 9/11 and finds much needed joy in both blogging and cooking.
Julia, who lives in Paris with her fellow former OSS officer-turned-husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), finds her ambition later in life, becoming the first American woman to study at the Cordon Bleu. She then spends years co-writing with her colleagues Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck what will become the landmark book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a still-highly influential tome that taught Americans there was more to eat than canned, frozen, or processed foods and that cooking could be a joy.
The film’s parallel contemporary storyline follows Julie, a New Yorker pushing 30 who has yet to find anything near the success that her friends have and who can never seem to finish anything she starts, such as her novel. She works as a call center rep for an agency overseeing the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. It’s a demoralizing job, but Julie finds the perfect outlet in cooking. A huge fan of Child’s, Julie devotes the next year to cooking all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and documenting it in a blog. She becomes obsessed with completing the herculean task, much to the chagrin and neglect of her long-suffering but devoted husband Eric (Chris Messina). Powell’s blog soon becomes so popular that she, like her idol, finds success as a culinary book author.
Surprise! Streep is the best thing about this movie and the biggest reason to go see it. While her male contemporaries, such as De Niro and Pacino, have almost become caricatures of themselves, Streep simply gets better and — pun intended since it’s a foodie movie — more delectable with each movie she’s been in lately. Julie & Julia caps off a grand run she’s had in recent years of being the best thing in often so-so movies. Streep nails Julia Child’s distinctively haughty voice, and brings the late cooking icon to vivid life with equal parts charm, warmth and humor. (She even seems to have grown taller and bigger built to play the role.) Much as she did in last summer’s Mamma Mia!, Streep appears to be having a blast being in the movie and so the audience has fun watching her. The result is another crowd-pleasing, scene-stealing, and likely award-fetching performance.
Unfortunately, she has to share the movie with other characters and therein lies the biggest problem with Julie & Julia. Whenever Streep/Child is not on-screen, the viewer loses interest — and the movie loses steam — despite the efforts of so many other talented actors. Tucci (who also appeared in the sumptuous foodie flick Big Night) fares best as Julia’s husband Paul; he gentlemanly cedes the spotlight to Streep. He knows he’s here to play the supporting spouse role and that’s it, but he nevertheless imbues Paul with a quiet strength and stature (which is ironic given how much Julia towers over him). Likewise, Chris Messina, who had a memorable and moving role in Away We Go, plays Julie’s “saintly” husband as the personification of patience is a virtue. But that aside, the movie’s Eric is a bore.
Jane Lynch, Linda Emond, and Frances Sternhagen make noteworthy appearances, but it’s Adams who is burdened most with having to match Streep, whom she shares no scenes with. The shadow of Julia Child is cast over the entire movie, and Julie Powell’s ambitions and accomplishments simply pale in comparison. Julia taught Americans that “culinary arts” are two terms that really do belong together, leaving behind books that still influence foodies and chefs. Julie wrote a blog, followed someone else’s recipes, and got a movie made about her within six years of the events depicted.
It’s fascinating how both Child and Powell used then-burgeoning mediums — television and the Internet, respectively — to reach audiences and make their mark, but Child’s accomplishments dwarf whatever success Powell earned. It’d be like making a dual biopic of Steven Spielberg and those guys who remade Raiders in their backyard. It’s no contest. (At least this movie provides a fairer and more accurate portrayal of bloggers than any other film has thus far.) Ephron is no stranger to tackling parallel plots, namely in Sleepless in Seattle. But in this case Child’s story is just more entertaining and engrossing than Powell’s, so Ephron’s overall film suffers as a result.
As portrayed here, Julia had a zest and an appreciation for life, smiling and cooking her way through good times and bad. She loved her husband, with each of them treating the other as a full partner. Julie, on the other hand, comes across as a self-absorbed, neurotic whiner in comparison. Perhaps it can be chalked up to generational differences, although, in fairness to Julie, life in romantic post-war France and beleaguered post-9/11 New York City obviously beget two entirely different attitudes and experiences. Maybe Julia wouldn’t have been so cheery had she worked thanklessly in a cubicle dealing with grieving loved ones.
Despite the shortcomings of the Julie half of Julie & Julia, the film nevertheless still offers viewers a satisfying meal. It’s funny, heartfelt and escapist fare that will leave your mouth watering at all the meals prepared during the course of the movie — although to be fair, it’s the meals that Child prepares that leaves the viewer with a hearty appetite. Powell’s will leave you wondering how good the pizza was at the parlor she lived above.
You can judge a society by how it treats the least of its peoples. But what if you expand that truism beyond individual societies and apply it to the human race? How would we react to interplanetary refugees who are forced into isolation and damned to scrape out life as a hopeless underclass?
That’s the semi-theoretical social dilemma posed to audiences by the debut theatrical work of director Neill Blomkamp. The South African-bred writer/director caught the eye of Peter Jackson, famed director and producer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming The Lovely Bones, who commissioned Blomkamp to work on the now-defunct Halo film adaptation. While Halo may be long gone, the skills he demonstrated on the short test films were enough to give Jackson the confidence in Blomkamp to create a genre piece of genuine significance.
District 9 is the result of both Blomkamp’s demonstrable talent as a filmmaker and clearly sensitivity towards the social welfare of those displaced through apartheid in South Africa – hence, District 9 is semi-theoretical. This is not Transformers-esque twaddle hidden under a veil of authenticity.
As far-removed from a Michael Bay action movie as District 9 is, that’s not to say that the experience is anything less than completely absorbing and intense. This is easily one of the best science fiction films of recent years – up there with similarly toned works like The Abyss or even the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. Handicam shots of Johannesburg’s muted skyline, filled with a tremendous alien craft bearing down silently on upon it and its downtrodden residents, sets the scene perfectly – two disparate cultures about to clash.
Twenty years of racism, bureaucracy and violence later, we join the pencil-pushing lead character, Wikus van der Merwe, as he joins security forces to move the segregated alien residents of District 9 into even more oppressive, concentration camp-like dwellings. Things do not go smoothly, and Wikus’ life begins to spiral out of control.
Wikus is portrayed with surprising sincerity by virtual unknown South African actor, Sharlto Copley. Copley is initially a little self-conscious on screen but seems to ease into the roll as the film progresses and his character is injected with a few interesting personality quirks and hurdles to overcome. As he evolves as a character, the more likeable and believable he becomes; less of a two-dimension office flack, if you will, and more of the leading man he needs to be in order to carry the weight of the narrative.
Some side-characters and their involvements don’t fare quite as well; the gung-ho military forces, lead by your typically brutish jarhead-a-likes, are sadly predictable, and a key figure close to Wikus seems inexplicably warped just beyond the limits of believability. That said, we’re not talking about major issues – just small areas of acting and storytelling that will likely improve in subsequent films, given Blomkamp’s relative inexperience.
Playing to Peter Jackson’s strengths as a producer – and conveniently, his access to Weta Workshops – Blomkamp’s alien race are confronting and occasionally pitiful bunch. Branded the derogatory nickname ‘Prawns’ by bigots on the front line, the beings are handled with the same sterling level of detail and care that we’ve come to expect (and perhaps take for granted) from Jackson’s Weta. They’re insectoid in appearance; all hard angles and ridges – but the film affords audiences the occasional close-up, betraying wide, thoughtful eyes and enough humanity to make these CG creations sensitive and sympathetic to the audience. Of these, ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his child, become core to the story.
Their struggle to keep their culture alive takes a backseat to simply trying to survive – the interplay between parent and child is poignant, often displaying more kindness and humanity than even Wikus’ own family. Their hostile world is filled with fantastic sets and props –again, nothing that should come as a surprise, given the pedigree of effects talent at work behind the camera.
Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut is visually bold; eighty percent of the film is told through either recounted testimonials or on-foot ‘documentary camera crews’ following the action and relating it directly back to the audience. The other twenty percent follows more traditional methods of filmmaking – cutting away to private moments between key characters, away from the documentary crews.
It’s a style that has played out successfully in past sci-fi genre subversions like Cloverfield, and even Blomkamp’s own ‘Alive in JoBurg’ (which is something of a test piece or companion tale to District 9). Low-resolution video tape is intermingled with subtle CG effects to mesmerising and convincing effect. Perhaps it’s not as breakthrough as it might have been pre-Cloverfield, but it certainly makes for more compelling viewing than your typical high-gloss Hollywood production. If there’s any downside to this, the shooting style does occasionally feel like Blomkamp is trying to throw in an example of every technique he’s capable of – perhaps an offshoot of first-film overcompensation.
Regardless, the beauty of adopting the documentary style for the bulk of District 9 is in the tone that we, as an audience, come to expect from a documentary. We are compelled to accept this documentary footage as fact, and that what we’re watching is of clearly a document of some importance. It sets audiences up to expect a mild ‘documentary’ tone – perhaps something almost humorous – and it makes the eventual bursts of violence and extreme gore all the more arresting. If you have a serious aversion to exploding heads, bursting bodies and high-impact scenes of violence against insectoid-beings, steer clear.
Of course, these moments of punctuated violence only serve to underline how delicately handled most of the film actually is. The accompanying score, composed by Clinton Shorter, mixes in African vocals and classical tones –reinforcing the setting of the film and reminding audiences that there’s more to scoring a motion picture than simply hiring Harry Gregson-Williams or Danny Elfman.
District 9’s testimonial-format also draws on racial tensions between black and white South Africans and appropriates it beautifully. The dialogue never harps on about the follies of prejudice –and again, District 9 could be taken on surface value alone as a science fiction action film and still satisfy the lowest common denominator out there in the audience.
That said, we suppose Blomkamp hopes viewers will peer a little more deeply into the situation and see the real story being told – a very real oppression that is ongoing in South Africa – and one that can’t afford to be ignored. As audiences are compelled early in the film to “learn from what has happened”, Blomkamp uses District 9 to quietly remind us that it’s too late for some.