Saturday, October 24, 2009

Astro Boy

ASTRO BOY (David Bowers, 2009)

A classic Japanese manga and anime character gets an American polish in the new computer-animated film ASTRO BOY. The film's futuristic setting is Metro City, an island in the sky removed from the environmentally-ravaged Earth below them. This home in the clouds is where the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) creates robots that take care of practically every human need.

When Dr. Tenma's son Toby is accidentally killed during a military experiment at the Ministry of Science, the grieving father builds a robot clone of his boy. Initially the new Toby delights Dr. Tenma, but as it becomes clear that he hasn't truly duplicated his son, the scientist loses affection for him. Chased from Metro City by General Stone's warriors, Toby finds a new home on Earth and is given the name Astro (Freddie Highmore).

Neither silly enough to be fun nor deep enough to be meaningful, ASTRO BOY comes off like a film as confused about its nature as its main character. The sleek, brightly colored movie can be zippy fun when in comic book mode. The action sequences are nicely rendered, as is the animation.

Astro Boy's harried robot servant, voiced by Eugene Levy, and a talking squeegee and squirt bottle provide some sorely needed humor. This space age riff on PINOCCHIO can be glum and heavy handed as it explores such topics as parental grief, political power grabs, and environmental destruction.

ASTRO BOY'S shortcomings may be the result of trying to do too much. The political subtext regarding a power-mad military leader is particularly clunky and doesn't mesh with the more resonant family themes. In terms of plot and character the film is unfocused and unsatisfying. ASTRO BOY may have many of the same parts as the source material, but as Dr. Tenma learns, trying to replicate something doesn't mean you end up with the same original.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (F. Gary Gray, 2009)

In LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) watches helplessly as two intruders murder his wife and daughter. Clyde feels similarly powerless when city prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal with one of the killers. It's just business as usual in the district attorney's office, but the apparent injustice and the inequity--one man receives the death penalty, the other gets a shortened sentence--enrages Clyde.

Ten years later he avenges his family by tampering with the execution to make it more painful and abducting, torturing, and killing the criminal who cut a plea. Clyde's revenge doesn't stop when he's arrested and imprisoned. Even from behind bars he takes out his anger on everyone involved with the case and threatens to bring down the entire justice system.

The diverting garbage that is LAW ABIDING CITIZEN would be more deplorable if it were possible to take this wholly implausible film seriously. Butler's Joker-like character terrorizes and kills those in the judicial and legal establishment because of his dissatisfaction with the system.

Ordinarily he would be the villain, but LAW ABIDING CITIZEN'S sympathies are clearly with him. Forget due process. Forget civil rights. Forget the underpinnings of society. This is an angry film in which one man's perception of injustice rationalizes engaging in the cold-blooded murder of anyone peripherally involved with the case and promoting lawlessness as an appropriate response.

To feed the lust for blood and anarchy director F. Gary Gray stacks the deck in the first scene. He shows Clyde's family being killed and suggests the rape of the wife and possibly the daughter. Of course this puts the audience in Clyde's corner, but the leap from wanting just punishment to advocating the deaths of the defense, prosecution, and other government employees goes beyond the pale.

As inflammatory as the film sounds, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is too preposterous to be dangerous. Clyde's apparent ability to be anywhere at any time while locked up defies logic, as does the film's inevitable explanation.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are


Based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE follows the adventures of a little boy in a wolf suit who runs away from home. Max (Max Records) is a creative, and energetic kid, but his rambunctiousness sometimes gets him into trouble. After lashing out at his mom (Catherine Keener), Max sprints out of the house to avoid a scolding. He finds a boat that takes him to an island inhabited by large creatures who make him their king.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE imaginatively evokes the childhood fears and wonders experienced when trying to make sense of the world. In a few brief brush strokes writer-director Spike Jonze and co-write Dave Eggers elegantly convey Max's confusion about his parents' divorce, his mom's new relationship, the emotional distance from his father, and gradual separation from his sister as she prefers to spend more time with friends her age.

These changes disorient Max and make him angry, but he's not a bad kid. Jonze wrote for and produced the JACKASS TV shows and films, and he envisions Max as a similarly rough and tumble boy who learns the pleasure and pain that comes in horseplay and in life.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE can be thin plot-wise, but the virtuosic visual component and amazing practical and CGI effects compensate for these storytelling shortcomings. There are shots in the film where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Max's voyage on an ocean with towering waves and the stunning views of the island landscape and the wild things' giant nest under construction are indelible images.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a sad, baffling, and joyous film, but such is the life of a child.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Invention of Lying

THE INVENTION OF LYING (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009)

In the alternative world presented in THE INVENTION OF LYING everyone tells the truth to a fault. While honesty all the time might sound ideal, it can produce brutal results. For screenwriter Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais), it means being subjected to insults and uncomfortable interactions.

After losing his job and facing eviction, Mark asks a bank teller for more money than is in his account and receives it. Like the rest of society, the banker has no mechanism for recognizing dishonesty. Mark uses his newly discovered power to lie and improve his life, but the consequences of his lying eventually catch up with him in ways he couldn't have anticipated.

Gervais is not one to let pride get in the way of a good joke at his expense, and as star, co-writer, and co-director of THE INVENTION OF LYING, he gleefully sends the cruelest barbs his way. The film gets off to a rollicking start with everyone spouting their uncensored opinions.

Clearly all truth all the time has its down sides despite what our parents taught us about lying. Similarly, the film amuses in how unquestioning people are in accepting Gervais' untruths and the problems this creates. Falsehoods can be damaging, but telling lies can be the right or civil thing to do and can spur creativity. After all, what is fiction, which is something that doesn't exist in the film's art-less universe?

Gervais is an avowed atheist, so he uses THE INVENTION OF LYING'S concept to explore what he views as the deleterious effects of religion. The satire is nowhere near as biting and isn't as dismissive as would be expected from a comedian who specializes in humor of discomfort. Gervais and co-writer/director Matthew Robinson also struggle to balance the headier notions floating about in THE INVENTION OF LYING. The philosophical musings can drag down the lighter elements and lend an uneven tone to the film.

Gervias is funny throughout and well-matched with Jennifer Garner, who delivers a guileless performance marked by chipper, unyielding logic as Mark's love interest Anna. Gervais may put no stock in religious belief, but via Garner's character he presents an implicit riposte to leaving everything merely to reason.

Gervais has helped craft a funny but inconsistent film, yet I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I appreciate the ambition and humor put into what could have been a one-note premise.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 09, 2009

Paranormal Activity


Like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the low budget chiller PARANORMAL ACTIVITY assembles raw footage found in the aftermath of an encounter with something beyond our understanding of the natural world. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play a couple who observe weird occurrences and sounds in their home and are becoming more spooked by them. In keeping with the intent of passing this off as real, the actor's first names share their first names with the characters.

Katie has experienced these disturbances since childhood and feels they are becoming more persistent. In the hope of finding an explanation, Micah purchases video equipment to record nearly everything that happens when they are awake and asleep. What the tapes reveal does not comfort them.

The makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY understand that the most frightening things are what we imagine but can't see. Whether it's the creaks and cracks of a home settling at the end of the day or the hiss of air that sounds like vague voices coming from the vents, things that go bump in the night can scare even the most rational person, especially one who's half-asleep.

Writer-director Oren Peli uses PARANORMAL ACTIVITY'S limitations of a single location and low budget to his supreme advantage. The camera never leaves the property on which the couple's home sits, so no relief is ever provided. The mental wear and tear of living in a stressful place and in an increasingly tense relationship is played beautifully by the actors and is thus transferred to the viewers.

Peli stokes audience suggestibility and encourages scanning the video noise for the tiniest sign of something supernatural at play. With agonizing anticipation of something bad happening, he teases for long stretches and then delivers fleeting but startling glimpses or sounds of something untoward going on.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY isn't an actor's film per se, but it wouldn't be as eerily effective without Featherston and Sloat's believable, lived in performances. Since we observe everything through their eyes, the film becomes scarier the more their relationship frays.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 02, 2009

Whip It

WHIP IT (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

In WHIP IT the unconventional Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) seeks an escape from her podunk hometown of Bodeen, Texas and the beauty pageants her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) enthusiastically signs her up for.

Bliss finds the answer at the roller derby in Austin. The fast, hard-hitting sport featuring strong, uncompromising women is a refreshing alternative to the images she knows. On the sly Bliss tries out for and wins a spot on the team and becomes a star known as Babe Ruthless. The secrets she keeps from her family and teammates can't remain hidden forever, though.

WHIP IT bears the personality that director Drew Barrymore has cultivated as an actress. The feminist coming of age sports dramedy has a sweet and sunny disposition bolstered by a proud independent streak. WHIP IT can lapse into sitcom mode from time to time, but other than Jimmy Fallon's grating work as a roller derby emcee, Barrymore is adept at getting good performances even when the material takes exaggerated routes.

Page's well-rounded turn as Bliss has grit, sass, and vulnerability, all of which are essential to the character striking out on her own path despite what her parents expect. Yet Barrymore doesn't let Bliss off the hook when she makes bad decisions.

Daniel Stern plays Bliss' father as a sensible man who knows to let his wife and child sort out their differences while also taking pride in his daughter's self-discovery. The moments in which he hunts and pecks at a keyboard to see Bliss on the roller derby website and later is able to display his joy to the neighbors are nice, small character flourishes. Harden initially comes off as the stereotypical uptight mother, but just like a child discovering that mom is more clued in to reality than anticipated, her character deepens.

The first-time director shows a nice touch for depicting small town life as well as parsing family dynamics. The Cavendar home looks and feels like a rural or suburban residence, and the relationships seem natural too. If Barrymore wishes to carve out a non-acting path for herself, WHIP IT certainly demonstrates that she has solid instincts.

Grade: B-