The past couple of months have been unusually busy for me, as I’m sure my lack of writing output has indicated. Despite that, I’ve still been seeing movies—I just haven’t taken the time to write about my thoughts on them. In an effort to rectify the situation, here’s another bundled-together batch of movie reviews:
|Where the Wild Things Are ()|
|A Serious Man ()||Whip It ()|
|Fantastic Mr. Fox ()||2012 ()|
|A Christmas Carol ()||Couples Retreat ()|
As opposed to how I usually do these (in order of release), this time they’re listed in order of how I would recommend them. Unfortunately some of these are no longer in theaters, but in those cases they should be available on video soon enough.
- Where the Wild Things Are () – Released theatrically 10/16/09; Directed by Spike Jonze; Written by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers; Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper
So much more than a simple adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s timeless children’s book, Spike Jonze’s live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are is an impressively bold film that goes places where few would dare, and succeeds in its unique vision from top to bottom. It’s the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) who has a typically tumultuous life for a boy his age, living with his single mother (Catherine Keener) and older sister (Pepita Emmerichs), neither of whom has enough time to keep him entertained. After a particularly bad fight with his mom, Max runs away and imagines himself escaping to a fantasy land where he is made king. There he meets the Wild Things, which should be held up as the gold standard of not only creature effects, but of voice acting as well. They’re part Henson Shop costumes, part CGI, with the line being blurred—and the appropriate restraint with animation being used—so as to make them come to life on screen as well as anything I’ve seen. The effect is amplified by exemplary voice acting, which is terrific throughout, but worthy of specific mention is the work of James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, who bring a thoroughly impressive amount of life and depth to their Wild Things.
The overarching tale of this movie is a near-perfect realization of the mind of a child—the boundless imagination, the ad-hoc problem-solving skills, and the creative licenses that a young boy takes in telling himself a story within his own mind. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that co-writer Dave Eggers is the founder of 826 Valencia, a non-profit dedicated to nurturing children’s writing aspirations. (Eggers also wrote a novelization to coincide with the film’s release.) Max often writes himself into a corner, only to invent new abilities or rules of the world in which his story takes place to get himself out of it. The way the Where the Wild Things Are script depicts aspects of Max’s real-world life as events and situations in the land of the Wild Things is particularly impressive; rather than overtly allegorical parallels, there’s more a translation of general emotions and relationships into subtly relevant imaginary situations.
The production is rounded out by some very unique music. The score, by the great Carter Burwell, is energetic and lively; it’s complemented (and often counterpointed) by hipster coffee-shop ditties by Karen O.. The former works better than the latter, but both conspire to establish the appropriate moods of the film throughout.
Upon first seeing Where the Wild Things Are, I thought its one downfall might be that it’s a bit violent for its target audience—there’s a lot of talk of stepping on heads, ripping out brains, and the like. I’ve been assured, though (by my preschool-teacher wife), that this is how kids play: it’s not real violence they’re imagining, it’s just creatively fertile minds being allowed to run wild; in fact, there’s a great example in the film of something that, realistically, should be a violent and gross situation, but filtered through the naive problem-solving mind of a child, it ends up being a tender, innocent moment. You’ll see what I mean. This is the kind of movie that grows on you, that you’ll enjoy continuing to reflect upon as much as you did sitting through it. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again.
- A Serious Man () – Released theatrically 10/2/09; Directed and written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen; Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff
I saw an Ebert headline framing the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man as a retelling of the Book of Job (it was probably this review, but as per my standing rule of not reading other reviews of a movie until I’ve written my own, I haven’t read it yet). After seeing the movie for myself, in the most hallowed venue for the open exchange of ideas (the men’s room), I overheard a conversation reiterating that interpretation of it. Not being much of a Bible scholar myself, I’m not sure how adept the comparison is, but I do know that in general referring to a story as being “Job-like” means it’s about a guy who gets tested from every angle in his life and has a crisis of faith as a result, and that description certainly fits A Serious Man. Larry Gopnik, its main character (Micahel Stuhlbarg), has it coming at him from all sides: his wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a mutual friend named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is overstaying his welcome in the Gopnik home, and is drawing the attention of the FBI via a quack numerology scam he uses to help him achieve gambling success; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is getting himself into trouble at school; one of his students at the college where he teaches physics is accusing him (falsely) of capricious grading; and his neighbors at home are causing uncomfortable situations for him, to say the least.
Larry frequently wonders what could possibly be Hashem‘s intention in all of this, and so he seeks advice from a series of three Rabbis. It should go without saying that these interactions are open to a variety of interpretations, but my reading of them is not only as a humorous commentary on the role of traditional religion in people’s lives, but as an outright indictment of its futility in addressing real-world problems. These Larry-Rabbi meetings frame the structure of the film, and they serve as its comedic high points as well. (They’re also tied to a Jefferson Airplane motif that runs throughout the film, which I particularly enjoyed.)
Like all of the Coen Brothers’ best work, this is meticulous filmmaking. To those who enjoy the well-crafted set-up of a scene, the slow build of subtle storytelling, the ability of a film to frustrate an audience with an impressively strong sense of empathy for its characters, it’s a must-see; A Serious Man is the product of accomplished artists at the top of their craft. For others, though, it will feel too drawn out, too modestly scoped, and too open-ended (as I mentioned, it’s open to a lot of interpretation, and is happy to leave you to engage in that interpretation on your own, rather than pointing you in a specific direction or explicitly spelling things out). I count myself more in the former camp than the latter, but I do admit that I felt the movie dragged at times. Stylistically, it’s as polished and finely-crafted as No Country For Old Men, but slower, smaller, and more personal in its approach. (Also like that film, it credits Carter Burwell with a score, though I have no recollection of there being one.) It has a lot in common with Fargo, but it’s not as funny, and not as light-hearted in its tack. It has a prologue sequence of confusing relation to the rest of the film. It ends abruptly in a way that will either frustrate or satisfy, depending on your disposition (personally, I loved it). It’s a slice-of-life story filtered through the minds of the Coens, who operate at a level above just about everyone else out there, and that in and of itself is enough to recommend it.
- Whip It () – Released theatrically 10/2/09; Available on DVD and Blu-ray 1/26/10; Directed by Drew Barrymore; Written by Shauna Cross; Starring Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Kristen Wiig
There’s a genre of film that sets itself in the world of a niche pasttime, teaching its audience about that world while telling its story. Whip It, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, is such a film. It’s the story of a girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) who is disenchanted with the beauty pageants her southern mother (Marcia Gay Harden) has forced her into since she was a young girl. She seeks out a more exciting and fulfilling source of thrills, as angsty teenagers in movies tend to do, and finds herself in a Texas roller derby league. The audience learns about the sport along with her, as Bliss—you guessed it—grows up a bit in the process, earning the respect of her parents and even managing to fall in love while she’s at it.
The story itself is a cliche, but it has the unique aspect of the roller derby league to fall back upon for bouts of originality. Barrymore does an impressive job of directing, in several respects. Her style for bringing us up to speed on the world of roller derby is fresh and nicely handled: the rink announcer (Jimmy Fallon) describes the rules to the crowd while narrating the action, which Barrymore intercuts with cute diagrams showing the “strategy” behind the sport. The action overall is shot tastefully, keeping things exciting and tense without resorting to rapidfire cuts and shaky camera work, as is all too common as of late. The script, written by Shauna Cross and based on her book, knows its structure isn’t all that unique, but it adds a lot of originality in how it handles the details. It has fun with the names of the derby girls: Barrymore appears as “Smashley Simpson,” Kristen Wiig is “Maggie Mayhem,” the always fun to see Zoe Bell (who I fell in love with when she played herself in Death Proof) shows up as “Bloody Holly.” Et cetera. There’s even a couple of derby-ers called the “Manson Sisters”—an obvious homage to Slap Shot. It’s all tongue in cheek and self-knowingly cute, but the tone works well enough in context.
The story draws some additional depth from Bliss’s relationship with her parents, who are extremely well-written. Daniel Stern, in particular, is a likeable yet realistic father, and he plays his role truthfully and lovingly. He’s like a toned-down version of J.K. Simmons’ dad from Juno, with as many wisecracks but more emotional relevance. The counterpoint lies in Bliss’s relationship with Oliver (Landon Pigg), which is weakly developed and sort of nonsensical (Pigg’s ho-hum acting doesn’t help much, either). Despite that, Whip It is a fun film that’s executed better than most in this genre. It’d be tempting to call it “Dodgeball for girls,” but it’s more—and better—than that.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox () – Released theatrically 11/25/09; Directed by Wes Anderson; Written by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach; Starring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Anderson, Wally Wolodarsky, Bill Murray
Like most movie nerds, I’m a pretty big Wes Anderson fan, so I was looking forward to seeing his treatment of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox. Expecting it to be “A Wes Anderson Movie,” I think, is why I ended up being slightly disappointed in it: there are a few Anderson-style touches here and there—his trademark titles, a hip musical number—but on the whole, the movie is a straight-up kids’ film. This isn’t to say it’s not good—it is. It just doesn’t really go above and beyond being a movie geared towards children, especially when Where the Wild Things Are is still fresh in my mind. Like that film, it features great voice acting, particularly from its two leads (George Clooney and Meryl Streep), with Anderson regulars (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) rounding things out nicely.
The stop-motion animation of the film has a bit of a retro feel to it, which fits with Anderson’s sensibilities quite well. The tone of Fantastic Mr. Fox is informed by its style of animation, with things remaining light-hearted and fun throughout. The writing style is playful, as well. The characters cuss at each other in the most literal fashion (they know just one obscenity: “cuss”). They’re happy to refer to each other as wild animals, and are surprisingly educated on the Latin names for each others’ species. The world in which they exist is one of malleable rules; for example, sometimes it seems like the humans cannot understand what the animals are saying, while at others they clearly can.
The story is essentially Chicken Run in reverse. The titular Mr. Fox (Clooney) gives up his life as a professional chicken-stealer in order to raise a family, but he misses the rush of his former job and gets himself into a mess of trouble by surreptitiously returning to it, against the wishes of his wife (Streep). He’s aided by his possum landlord (Wally Wolodarsky), his hapless son (Schwartzman), and his athletic wunderkind of a nephew (Eric Anderson). What follows is a fairly standard critters-versus-farmers battle of wits, which progresses into a battle of arms as well, as the rest of the community of animals also gets involved in the struggle (including Bill Murray’s badger lawyer and his family). Along the way, they combat a conglomerate of three farmers, who are aided by their drunken rat security guard (Willem Dafoe). Things remain light throughout, but Mr. Fox does take the time to reflect on his life and his responsibilities to his family and his community at times, fulfilling the requisite moral subtext. There’s nothing really groundbreaking in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless, and Wes Anderson’s stylistic touches keep things fun and interesting. I imagine that kids would find it even more entertaining than I did.
- 2012 () – Released theatrically 11/13/09; Directed by Roland Emmerich; Written by Roland Emmerich & Harold Kloser; Starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover
With the Y2K nonsense well behind us, the next doomsday scenario for the paranoid to obsess over is the 2012 “prediction” of the Mayan calendar, which supposedly foretells the end of the world in December of that year. It was inevitable that Hollywood would take a crack at this story (and I’m sure there’ll be more than one), and I suppose if it was going to be done, Roland Emmerich is as good a choice as anybody to be the one to do it. He relishes in big films, with big stars, big effects, big explosions, and big stakes, and his 2012 is all of that. It’s also big in running length, which is probably its biggest downfall; a movie like this can be fun for about 90 minutes, but add another hour onto that and it just drags, whatever charm it had wearing off rather quickly.
Emmerich has assembled for this film a fantastic cast, full of great actors who dive deep into their roles and help the film maintain credibility, despite its otherwise-silly premise. I would call John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor co-leads; the former is the audience’s surrogate who goes through the adventure of the “end of the world as we know it” as an everyday man (albeit one with exceptional driving skills), and the latter is the scientist who provides the necessary explanation of what is happening (it has something to do with some hand-waving about the sun emitting too many neutrinos and causing the earth’s crust to shift in catastrophic ways). The decimation of the planet comes quickly and often, and for the first half of the movie it is the primary focus. The world-destruction special effects are really good, although a little curious at times: as earthquakes spread throughout LA, the ground doesn’t so much break apart as just dissolve, while Cusack drives his limo just inches ahead of the opening chasms (which reminded me a bit of Angela Bassett’s character from Strange Days, but with the absurdity turned up to 11—he jumps a hole in the ground not once, but twice). To me one of the most fun parts of a disaster movie is seeing the destruction of iconographic structures, and 2012 is happy to indulge in that particular cliche: the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio crumbles, the Wynn in Las Vegas sinks into the ground, the skyscrapers of downtown LA tilt and crash into each other, and all of this is done exceptionally well, with some of the best CG effects to date.
There’s also some interesting conspiracy-theory takes on the goings-on, with the governments of the world knowing about the forthcoming devastation but not making it public knowledge. Danny Glover makes a great President of the U.S., and plays his role with dignity, while Oliver Platt is a stereotypical (but effective) douchebag advisor who lets his ego get in the way of his judgment. On the other end of the spectrum is a humorous Woody Harrelson as the crazy off-the-gridder who has so many whacky theories that one of them is bound to be right. There are other stereotypes as well: Cusack’s character, of course, is a down-and-out novelist with family problems (his ex-wife, played by Amanda Peet, has remarried, his kids prefer their new father-in-law, etc.). He becomes, of course, the unlikely hero. There’s also a tacked-on love story with Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, who, like the rest of the cast, gives a good performance (redeeming herself, in my mind at least, for W.). Really, there are just too many characters, too many side-plots, which simply serve to bog down the storyline and extend the movie’s running time. It feels like Emmerich and his co-writer Harold Kloser started by listing every cliche they could think of, and then making sure they worked them all into their script—with an extra helping of cheese on top. It’s fun for a while, but 2012 isn’t able to sustain the momentum of its first and second acts throughout its all-too-long third. I think the best advice I could give to somebody who might be interested in seeing this film, in fact, is to see Knowing instead.
- A Christmas Carol () – Released theatrically 11/6/09; Directed and written by Robert Zemeckis; Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes
Every time I’ve encountered an incarnation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I find myself sympathizing with Ebenezer Scrooge during the early stages of the story, which I suppose says something about my predisposition to the classic tale. Robert Zemeckis’s recent motion-captured, computer-animated adaptation was no different. To the best of my knowledge, it is the most literal film version of A Christmas Carol, following the original story very closely, but also remaining true to the Dickensian language of the book and the moods and emotions it originally intended to invoke. (Todd Alcott wrote a nice piece about how Zemeckis gets the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as well as anybody.)
When it comes down to it, I suppose, A Christmas Carol is not a story I feel a particular affinity for, and I’m sure a significant portion of the reason for that is overexposure. Due to this fact, a new adaptation of it really has to go above and beyond in order to stand out, and Zemeckis does achieve this in some ways, but misses in more. Most of what it is successful at comes from Jim Carrey, who voices and provides the motion-capture acting for not only Scrooge—at multiple stages of life—but also all three of the ghosts he encounters, as well. The rest of the cast, however, tends to be overly melodramatic, with Zemeckis’s script as much to blame as his direction in this regard. Even the great Gary Oldman uncharacteristically over-acts a bit, which might be the film’s largest disappointment.
The animation, from Zemeckis’s ImageMovers Digital studio, is frustratingly uneven. Extra detail is afforded to the main characters (those portrayed by Carrey, and Oldman’s Bob Cratchit), who look nearly photo-realistic. The lesser characters, however, aren’t modeled with as much detail, and the end result is that it looks like Carrey’s characters are interacting with animatronic mannequins rather than other human characters. I understand the reasons for this—the more detailed the models, the longer the film takes to render—but it’s a poor production choice to make. It ends up making the film feel like it was rushed out the door in order to hit a specific release date (which is obviously desirable in this case) at the expense of its visuals: it’s going more for box office success than craft, and that’s always a formula for mediocrity. Likewise, the biggest departure from the classic tale in this incarnation is a silly sequence involving a shrunken Scrooge sliding around on what amounts to an amusement park ride made out of ice, in a blatant instance of setting the story aside for a while in order to make sure audiences who paid extra to see the film in 3D (which I did not do) feel like they got their money’s worth.
While parts of this most recent iteration of A Christmas Carol are impressive—Jim Carrey’s voice work, some of the character animation (particularly Scrooge), and the close adherence to the source material—it is mostly marked by a lack of uniqueness and creativity. With so many other adaptations already in existence, this one ends up being more of a proof-of-concept for Robert Zemeckis’s obsession with motion-capture animation technology, rather than a novel and original film that’s able to stand on its own.
- Couples Retreat () – Released theatrically 10/9/09; Directed by Peter Billingsley; Written by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn & Dana Fox; Starring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristin Bell, Kristin Davis
Couples Retreat is another in the long line of half-assed comedies, where the thinnest excuse for a story is thrown together so that some friends who happen to be actors can get together and have fun for a couple of months, and call the result a movie. It’s billed as starring Vince Vaughn, who seems to be happy to completely phone in the majority of his roles lately, despite the fact that he’s capable of being a fine actor when he actually tries. It’s really an ensemble cast, though, presumably because none of the actors involved wanted to work more than one-eighth of the time they would if asked to carry a film on their own. The most curious among the rest of the cast is Jason Bateman, who’s had a string of impressive—and credible—roles over the past few years, and even here seems like he’s the only one trying to keep things legitimate… which makes him feel quite a bit out of place. (Perhaps even more disappointing, though, is A.R. Rahman doing the film’s music; it’s sad to think that this was the highest-profile offer he got after his Oscar-winning score for Slumdog Millionaire.)
While I usually am pretty critical of movies with an ill-conceived storyline, Couples Retreat is one case where I find myself wondering why they even bothered. You can look at the poster and know exactly what it’s going to be about, so the exposition, no matter how protracted it may be, just serves to start things off on a boring note. And then after the jokes dry up, and all of the whacky occurrences that could be conceived to happen at an island resort have come to pass (hint: most of them involve instances of mistaken sexual identity), then there’s an attempt at a real story shoehorned in, which somehow makes things even worse. This is the answer to the typical comedy that wraps things up all too nicely in the last 5 minutes: here it’s a good 45 minutes of resolutions and lessons learned, and it’s even more boring than the exposition.
The climactic scene may be my least favorite of all. I’ve written before about my feelings on the Guitar Hero-type games, and while I think they’re silly, I admit that they’re also mostly harmless, but what I find even dumber than playing those games is watching others play them. And now I’ve found an additional level of dumb: paying money to watch a movie in which you have to watch other people pretend to play a game about pretending to play an instrument. In this case it’s a guitar-off between Vaughn—whose character is somehow involved in the business (apparently there’s a “business” of Guitar Hero)—and his nemesis, the resort director named Sctanley (isn’t it hilarious how his name is spelled with a c?).
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing funny in Couples Retreat, but there certainly isn’t a ton. As The Onion so accurately pointed out, it’s hard to believe that even the stars involved thought that what they were making was actually humorous or enjoyable.